You've decided to open your heart and home to a new feline friend. The problem is that the cat you fell in love with at the local animal shelter has tested positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). You know very little about the disease, and despite assurances from shelter staff that many FIV-positive cats live a long, normal life, you're not sure you're willing to take on the risk or responsibility. Unfortunately, many people feel that way, and shelters often have a difficult time finding forever homes for them. It does take a special person to take on this responsibility, but the rewards can more than make up for the additional concerns. Here's some information about FIV that might help you decide whether you are that special person.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
Feline immunodeficiency virus is just what it sounds like—a virus that affects cats, causing a deficiency in their immune system. It is similar to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and is often called feline AIDs, although it can't be transmitted to humans—or any other non-feline. The FIV virus itself does not cause illness in cats, but it does weaken the cat's immune system and makes it more susceptible to other diseases.
Although some cats may show some signs, such as lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea, within the first few weeks of infection, most will never show any signs until infected with an opportunistic disease. The compromised immune system can offer a gateway for diseases such as upper respiratory infections, bacterial skin infections, feline infectious peritonitis, urinary tract infections, feline leukemia and some cancers. The good news is many cats with FIV never show any symptoms and live a long and healthy life.
FIV is transmitted via saliva from an FIV-infected cat. However, it does not spread from cat to cat through casual contact such as sharing food bowls, sneezing or grooming each other. Transmission is almost always due to deep cat bites, which are uncommon among household cats. FIV is most commonly found in cats that are allowed to roam outside, especially unneutered male cats or feral felines because they are more likely to get into fights and inflict the types of wounds that spread the virus.
The virus may also be transmitted from a mother cat to her unborn or nursing kittens. In rare instances, it can be spread through transfusions.
Most animal shelters test for FIV before putting a cat up for adoption. Shelters without a no-kill policy may not allow an FIV-positive to go up for adoption due to space considerations and limited veterinary resources for long-term care. A simple and quick blood test to check for antibodies to the disease can determine an FIV infection, and the shelter should educate potential adopters about the potential risks and proper care. Kittens less than six months of age shouldn't be tested as they may receive antibodies from their infected or vaccinated mother, which would show up as a positive test. The antibodies generally disappear within six months with no other clinical signs of the disease.
If you bring a known FIV-infected cat into your home, it's obviously too late to prevent the disease in that cat, but you can help prevent spreading it to others.
- Introduce an FIV-positive cat to other household cats cautiously. Let them get to know each other through a closed door or enclosure that prevents direct contact, and supervise their first few instances of direct contact until they no longer show aggressive tendencies toward one another.
- Vaccinate your cats according to your veterinarian's guidelines to prevent spreading disease to your immune-compromised cat.
- Keep all your cats inside. The uninfected ones will be less likely to be exposed to FIV, and keeping them inside helps prevent other communicable diseases, parasites or bacterial infections that your FIV cat is more susceptible to. Also, keep an FIV-positive cat indoors to prevent him or her from spreading the virus to other outside cats.
- Spay and neuter your FIV-positive cats. They are less likely to spread the virus through aggressive mating habits, and females can't transmit the disease to their offspring.
- There's a vaccine available to help protect against FIV. However, it's not effective for all cats, so you still need to take other protective measures. The vaccine will create antibodies that will show as a positive FIV test even though the cat does not have the disease, so discuss the pros and cons with your veterinarian.
Caring for an FIV Cat
Although there is no cure for FIV, there are ways to manage its effects. Owners should bring the cat to their veterinarian at least twice a year for a physical exam and blood tests for secondary diseases. The earlier an illness is discovered and treated, the greater the likelihood of a good outcome. Watch for symptoms such as general malaise, behavior changes, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, pale gums, respiratory problems, seizures or in-coordination, and report any concerns to your vet or a veterinary hospital. Keep your cat current on vaccinations, and feed them a high-quality, nutritionally balanced diet. Avoid uncooked meat and eggs as they can contain bacteria or parasites that are dangerous to cats with suppressed immune systems.
FIV is not an automatic death sentence for a cat. Neither is it a threat to you and only a very minimal threat to your other cats. However, a cat with FIV does face an uphill battle finding a forever home. With a little extra diligence, you can make a positive difference in an FIV-positive cat's life and gain a loving companion for years to come.