FIV and your cat - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a viral disease that affects the immune system of domestic cats. The immune systems main function is to fight off infection and ensure the body remains healthy.  FIV is the feline equivalent of the human virus HIV and as such behaves in the same way, destroying the immune system and leaving a cat susceptible to infections and disease. Once the cat has been infected, FIV can then progress to feline acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, otherwise known as Feline AIDs.  FIV is a cat specific virus and cannot be transferred to humans or other species.

HOW IS FIV SPREAD?

FIV is spread mostly through bite wounds inflicted while fighting with other cats but can also be transmitted from a mother cat to her kittens across the placenta or through her milk.  Sexual transmission is also possible, but is seen to be a relatively low cause of the virus spreading. 

It is reported that on average there is between 14 to 29% of cats in our country that test positive to FIV. Some suburbs that have a larger number of feral and outdoor cats can have a higher percentage of FIV cases.  Your veterinarian will be aware of the incidence of FIV in the local area, so please feel free to discuss this with them. 

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE MY CAT TO SHOW SYMPTOMS?

After contracting the virus it exists in the cat’s body but does not initially cause the cat to become unwell. The average length of time between becoming infected with FIV, and the beginning of the symptoms related to the virus, is 7 years but may be as long as 10 years, or as little as less than a year.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF FIV?

The initial signs of being infected with the virus will often go unnoticed and in most circumstances the cat will recover and appear to be healthy for some time. 

Some symptoms to look out for:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Eventually however, an infected cat will succumb to other diseases as a result of their depleted immune system.

Other diseases, illnesses or symptoms

  • Dental problems and inflamed gums
  • Weight loss and a decline in body condition
  • Cancers such as lymphoma, carcinomas and sarcomas
  • Infections of organ systems related to immune suppression (this can occur in the respiratory tract, skin, kidneys, urinary tract and gastrointestinal system)
  • Anaemia (low numbers of red blood cells)
  • Low numbers of other cells including white blood cells and platelets
  • Behavioural changes (dementia, hiding, roaming, rage, depression, inappropriate urination and defaecation)
  • Inflammation of the eye

As the disease progresses a cat’s immune system becomes too weak to fight off other infections or disease and as a result, they will usually die from one of these subsequent infections.

HOW DO I TELL IF MY CAT HAS BEEN INFECTED?

A blood test that detects FIV antibodies can tell us if your cat has contracted the virus.  This can be performed 60 days after a possible exposure to the virus, for example a catfight. We normally do this screening test in our clinics laboratory.

Kittens less than 6 months of age can be tested for FIV but they may need to be re-tested if they come back with a positive result. This is because protective antibodies they receive from their mother’s milk can interfere with their test results.

IS THERE A TREATMENT FOR FIV?

Unfortunately there has been no successful treatment found for FIV infection. All we can do is stay alert for the early signs of disease or illness. Any infection a FIV positive cat contracts will be harder for them to fight due to their weakened immune system, and must be treated immediately and aggressively. This is also the reason why FIV positive cats need regular wellness visits with their veterinarian.

HOW DO I PROTECT MY CAT FROM FIV?

There are a number of things you can do to prevent infection:-

  • Vaccination - if your cat has been tested for FIV and their result is negative, they can be vaccinated against the virus.
  • Keep your cat indoors or in an enclosure to limit their exposure to other cats
  • Desex your cat to decrease the chance of them roaming and fighting with other cats
  • If you are introducing a new cat to your house, test the new cat for FIV first.

VACCINATING AGAINST FIV

Cats must be tested for FIV first and must be negative in order for them to be vaccinated.

The FIV vaccination consists of an initial course of 3 vaccinations 2-4 weeks apart, then a yearly booster.

It is also recommended that all cats that are vaccinated against FIV are microchipped.  This is due to the fact that if there were to go missing and end up at an animal shelter, they would have FIV antibodies from the vaccination detected in their blood stream.  It would be presumed that they were infected with FIV and be at risk of being euthanised.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY CAT IS DIAGNOSED WITH FIV?

With the correct care many infected cats continue to live fulfilling lives. To give your cat the best chance for a healthy future we recommend the following:-

Dietary recommendations

Avoid giving your cat raw meat, raw eggs and unpasteurised milk. Instead make sure they receive a well balanced, good quality diet. Feel free to ask us for more information on a nutritional plan for your cat.

Routine parasite control

Ensure your cat has a strict parasite control regime protecting them from intestinal worms, fleas, ticks and heartworm.  There are many different products available, please discuss with your veterinarian or vet nurse the most appropriate treatment for your pet. 

Yearly vaccination

Your cat should be vaccinated every year to protect them from the most common cat diseases.

Wellness visits at least every six months

Your veterinarian needs to see your cat at least every six months for a full physical examination. They may also conduct blood and urine tests regularly to pick up early changes associated with disease or illness. If any changes are detected your veterinarian will adopt a pro-active approach for diagnosis and treatment.

It is also very important that you make an appointment to get your FIV positive cat checked whenever they seem slightly unwell so that any problems can be dealt with early.

RESPONSIBLE OWNERSHIP OF AN FIV INFECTED CAT

FIV positive cats should be kept indoors both to limit their exposure to infections as well as to prevent spread of FIV to other cats. Any other cats in the household, if tested negative for FIV need to be vaccinated to give them the best chance of protection. If your FIV infected cat is not desexed it is also important for them to undergo this procedure to prevent further infection of kittens.

MICROCHIPS - A RECOMMENDATION

We strongly recommend that all cats which are vaccinated also get a microchip inserted at the time of their first vaccination if they are not already microchipped. This is because once a cat has been vaccinated against FIV they will show up positive on the tests for FIV. This happens because the tests for FIV pick up antibodies to the virus in the cat's blood. The production of antibodies is how the cat's body reacts to both the vaccination and the virus. The positive FIV test result in vaccinated cats does not mean that they have Feline AIDs, it just shows that they have produced antibodies to protect against the virus. 

At a lot of animal shelters, pounds etc, cats are tested for FIV and if positive may be put to sleep. If cats are microchipped this should avoid any testing and putting to sleep of cats which are mistakenly believed to be infected with FIV because they have FIV antibodies.