Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Cats infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) may not show symptoms until years after the initial infection occurred. Although the virus is slow-acting, a cat’s immune system is severely weakened once the disease takes hold. This makes the cat susceptible to various secondary infections. Infected cats receiving supportive medical care and kept in a stress-free, indoor environment can live relatively comfortable lives for months to years before the disease reaches its chronic stages.
An FIV-infected cat may not show any symptoms for years. Once symptoms do develop, however, they may continually progress—or a cat may show signs of sickness interspersed with health for years. If your cat is demonstrating any of the following symptoms, please have examined by your veterinarian:
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Disheveled coat
- Poor appetite
- Abnormal appearance or inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
- Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis)
- Inflammation of the mouth (stomatitis)
- Dental disease
- Skin redness or hair loss
- Wounds that don’t heal
- Discharge from eyes or nose
- Frequent urination, straining to urinate or urinating outside of litter box
- Behavior change
- FIV is mainly passed from cat to cat through deep bite wounds, the kind that usually occur outdoors during aggressive fights and territorial disputes—a perfect reason to keep your cat inside.
- Another, less common mode of transmission is from an FIV-infected mother cat to her kitten. FIV does not seem to be commonly spread through sharing food bowls and litter boxes, social grooming, sneezing and other casual modes of contact.
- Although any feline is susceptible, free-roaming, outdoor intact male cats who fight most frequently contract the disease. Cats who live indoors are the least likely to be infected.
Please note: FIV cannot be transmitted from cat to human, only from cat to cat.
- The best way to prevent your cat from contracting the virus is to keep him indoors, avoiding any chance of contact with infected felines.
- If you walk your cat, keep him on a leash when outdoors.
- If your cat is going to be spending any time in a cattery or in a home with other felines, make sure all cats have tested negative for FIV.
- Any recently adopted cat should be tested for FIV prior to entering your home.
- You may also want to speak to your veterinarian about the FIV vaccine and if it is appropriate for your cat.
When to Consult Your Veterinarian
If you suspect your cat has FIV, have him examined and tested by your veterinarian right away. During your visit, be ready to describe any symptoms that you have detected, no matter how minute they seem. Also make sure to keep your cat indoors, away from other felines who might possibly be infected or whom he could infect, until you have a diagnosis.
Without proper treatment, the secondary infections that can occur as a consequence of FIV can progress to life-threatening conditions. Additionally, cats with FIV can develop various forms of cancer, blood diseases or kidney failure, which will ultimately claim the cat’s life.
- FIV infection is routinely diagnosed by blood testing.
- The FIV status of every cat should be known.
- The most common type of test looks for the presence of antibodies to the virus in the blood. No test is 100% accurate all of the time, and your veterinarian will interpret the test result and determine whether further testing is needed to confirm either a positive or negative test result. Once a cat is determined to be FIV-positive, that cat is capable of transmitting the disease to other cats.
- Since it is possible for an infected mother cat to transfer FIV antibodies to her kittens, these kittens may test positive from their mother’s antibodies until they have cleared them from their systems, which happens by six months of age. Kittens who test positive for FIV antibodies when they’re younger than six months should undergo antibody tests again at a later date to see if they are infected.
Unfortunately, there is no specific antiviral treatment for FIV. Cats can carry the virus for a long time before symptoms appear. Therefore, treatment focuses mainly on extending the asymptomatic period or, if symptoms have set in, on easing the secondary effects of the virus. Your veterinarian may prescribe some of the following treatments:
- Medication for secondary infections
- Healthy, palatable diet to encourage good nutrition
- Fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Immune-enhancing drugs
- Parasite control
Caring for an FIV-Infected Cat
- Keep your cat indoors. This will protect him from contact with disease-causing agents to which he may be susceptible. By bringing your cat indoors, you’re also protecting the uninfected cats in your community.
- Watch for changes—even seemingly minor—in your cat’s health and behavior. Immediately report any health concerns to your vet.
- Bring your cat to your vet at least twice per year for a wellness checkup, blood count and urine analysis.
- Feed your cat nutritionally balanced food—no raw food diets, please, as bacteria and parasites in uncooked meat and eggs can be dangerous to immunocompromised pets.
- Be sure your cat is spayed or neutered.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FelV)
First discovered in the 1960s, feline leukemia virus is a transmittable RNA retrovirus that can severely inhibit a cat’s immune system. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disease and death in domestic cats. Because the virus doesn’t always manifest symptoms right away, any new cat entering a household—and any sick cat—should be tested for FeLV.
FeLV weakens an animal’s immune system and predisposes cats to a variety of infections and diseases, including anemia, kidney disease and lymphosarcoma, a highly malignant and fatal cancer of the lymph system.
Young kittens and cats less than one year of age are most susceptible to the virus. Cats living with an infected cat, allowed outdoors where they may be bitten by an infected cat, and kittens born to a mother who is FeLV positive are most at risk for infection.
- The FeLV virus is shed in many bodily fluids, including saliva, nasal secretions, urine, feces and blood.
- FeLV is most commonly transmitted through direct contact, mutual grooming and through sharing litter boxes, food and water bowls.
- It can also be passed in utero or through mother’s milk.
- Infected outdoor cats fighting with other cats can transmit the disease through bites and scratches.
Healthy cats over three months of age and vaccinated for FeLV are highly unlikely to contract the virus from another cat.
Signs of FeLV
Cats can be infected and show no signs. Others may exhibit:
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Pale or inflamed gums
- Poor coat condition
- Upper respiratory infections
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Changes in behavior
- Vision or other eye problems
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Reproductive problems (in females)
- Chronic skin disease
- Respiratory distress
- There is a vaccine available for cats who are at risk of contracting FeLV. Like all vaccines, there are risks involved in vaccination, and the vaccine is not a 100% guarantee against infection. Your veterinarian can best evaluate whether this vaccine is right for your cat.
- As with any infectious disease, the best prevention is eliminating sources of exposure. Routine FeLV testing and keeping your cat indoors and away from cats whose FeLV status is not known remain the best way to prevent your cat from becoming infected.
There are several types of tests available to diagnose FeLV.
- Most veterinarians and shelter professionals use the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test, which detects antigen to the FELV virus in the bloodstream.
- Other tests like the IFA (indirect fluorescent antibody) test or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test are recommended to confirm positive ELISA test results.
Caring for a Cat with FelV
- Feed your cat a nutritionally balanced diet, one free of raw meat, eggs and unpasteurized dairy products, which can harbor bacteria and parasites and lead to infection.
- Provide a quiet place for your cat to rest indoors and away from other cats who could promote disease.
- Bring your cat to the vet every six months—at the very least—for a wellness checkup and blood tests.
- During the early stages of infection, a cat may not show any clinical signs, but he can still pass the virus to other cats. It’s not advisable to introduce a new uninfected cat into the household, even one who has been properly vaccinated against FeLV. Those living in close quarters with infected cats are most at risk for infection, and should be tested for the virus and, if negative, be housed separately.
- FeLV is contagious to other cats, but not to humans or other species. Other cats in the house can acquire the virus from an infected cat. Though the virus doesn’t live long outside of the body, and is easily inactivated with common disinfectants, it can be passed through mutual grooming, shared food and water as well as common litter boxes.
- Sadly there is no cure for FeLV, and it is estimated that less than 20% of clinically infected cats survive more than three years of active infection. In the case of those cats who develop cancer, chemotherapy can help prolong life, but treatment often focuses on providing the best quality of life.
Material & Content Courtesy of: ASPCA; www.ASPCA.org