What Is FIV?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), also known as Feline AIDS, is a viral disease that causes suppression of the immune system by attacking the cells of a cat.  The virus belongs to a group called lentiviruses, which slowly cause disease, resulting in infected cats that may stay healthy for years before the virus has any visible negative impacts. Although there is no cure and the virus can be fatal if left untreated, with a well-balanced diet and treatment of secondary infections, an FIV- positive cat can live a normal life for a number of years.

Facts About The Virus

According to International Cat Care, the virus was first discovered during an investigation of a disease outbreak in rescue cats in the United States of America.  The cats had been showing similar signs and symptoms to people with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.  Although HIV and FIV are similar, the diseases are species-specific, meaning that HIV can only infect humans, and FIV can only infect cats.  That being said, there is no risk of infection from an infected cat to a human.

Transmission

The most common way that the disease is transferred from one cat to another is through a deep bite wound from an infected cat to a healthy cat.  An infected cat always has the virus present in his or her saliva, and is transferred to a healthy cat under the skin during a bite.  Intact cats (cats that are not neutered or spayed) and cats that are let outdoors are the most at risk of becoming infected.  Intact animals are more likely to get into fights with other cats because they tend to be more aggressive, and cats that go outdoors are more likely to encounter an intact animal (Kitten Rescue, 2018).

Many animal diseases are transferred through bodily fluids which can be of concern if there are more than one animal living in the same space.  Thankfully, cats that are living together are not likely to contract Feline Immunodeficiency Virus from casual contact, as cats living together in a home most likely get along.  There is no genetic predisposition to this virus, and on rare occasions, FIV can be transmitted from a mother cat to her kittens during birth or through milk during nursing.  It is also very rare for a cat to contract FIV from sharing food bowls or other communal items.

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Incubation Period

There is an incubation period of several months to even years for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus.  The virus is a lentivirus, or “slow virus”, that multiplies slowly over time and has a long incubation period before symptoms occur.  Many cats can even live a normal life for many years and then pass away from something else entirely before the FIV infection causes any issues.

Physiological Changes

FIV attacks the cells of the immune system of a cat, specifically the white blood cells (lymphocytes).  The virus damages and kills the white blood cells, resulting in a weakened immune system and a decline in the ability to fight off other diseases.  FIV causes a progressive deterioration of health and recurrent spurts of illness with periods in between of normal health.

During the first few weeks after infection, the virus begins to replicate inside a cat’s body and may cause symptoms including a mild fever and swollen lymph nodes.  The body will have an immune response to try and fight off the virus, keeping the viral replication rate at a low level.  This stage often goes unnoticed until the lymph nodes have become majorly enlarged, and a cat may then go a long period of time with no symptoms of illness.

In the following stage of the disease, some infected cats will have an increase in virus replication after a long period of time has passed.  This time period typically ranges from 2-5 years after the initial infection.  This second increase in viral replication takes a major toll on the cat’s immune system, and symptoms can occur anywhere in a cat’s body (International Cat Care).

Survival Rate

The lifespan for infected cats with FIV is variable and depends on the severity and stage of the disease.  Some cats will show signs and symptoms early on, however some cats will not show symptoms for years and can live a normal, healthy life.  It should be known that an FIV diagnosis is not an automatic death sentence.  Although the disease can be fatal if the symptoms are left untreated, an FIV positive cat can live a long and happy life for many years!

Prevalence

FIV infections tend to be more common in areas where cats live in crowded conditions or in free-roaming, outdoor male cats.  Crowded conditions can lead to cat fights, which is the primary form of transmission.  In general, among healthy cats, around 1-5% will be infected with FIV.  In high risk cats, such as those with weakened immune systems, the prevalence may be as high as 15-20%.  Infection is also more common in outdoor cats than in indoor cats, and about twice as common in male cats compared to female cats.  Although felines of all ages can be infected, animals that are about 5-10 years of age are most commonly diagnosed (International Cat Care).

Fact Vs Fiction

Myth 1: FIV is very contagious.

Fact: As long as cats are spayed and neutered, the transmission rate goes down to essentially zero.  FIV is only spread through the saliva of an infected cat in a deep bite wound, so as long as cats are not fighting aggressively, the disease cannot be spread.

Myth 2: An FIV diagnosis is a death sentence.

Fact: Cats with an FIV diagnosis can live long, happy, normal lives!  Even if they have a positive test result, cats can have a good quality of life and not have any symptoms for years.

Myth 3: A community cat has been tested positive for FIV.  This cat should not be returned to the colony.

Fact: According to Niki Cochran, program manager at Alley Cat Rescue, as long as the cats are spayed and neutered, these cats can be put back out into the community if they are healthy and thriving.

Myth 4: A kitten with FIV will die young.

Fact: There is a chance that a kitten will not make it, but there is also a really good chance that the kitten will be asymptomatic (not have any symptoms) and will lead a happy, healthy life!

What Is The Link Between FIV and HIV?

The Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) contains a specific protein that is also found in Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  Both diseases attack the immune system of their hosts, and cause the body to become susceptible to infection.  Due to the similarities between the two viruses, scientists are able to study FIV as a way to learn more about HIV, even though each virus is species-specific.  The hope is that by learning more about FIV, scientists can use the information and apply it to treating and hopefully one day curing HIV (Whiteman, 2018).

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TOP 5 FAQ

Can FIV cats live with other cats?

Yes!  As long as the infected cats are spayed or neutered, they can live with other cats.

Can FIV be transmitted to humans?

No.  The virus is species-specific, so humans cannot get FIV.

How is FIV spread?

FIV is spread through a deep bite wound from an infected cat to a healthy cat.  This often occurs with cats in crowded areas, or with intact outdoor male cats, as they tend to be more aggressive.

Are FIV cats expensive?

Not necessarily!  Although cats with FIV can be susceptible to more illnesses due to their weakened immune systems, some cats do not show signs of disease for years.  Each case is different, and some felines will require more medical care than others.

When should I FeLV/FIV test my cat?

There is great debate as to when cats should be tested for FeLV and FIV if at all, since those who test positive can often live long, healthy lives.  Consult your veterinarian as to whether or not your cat should be tested, especially if your cat is presenting symptoms of illness or if you are introducing a new cat to a multi-cat household.  For more information about the debate, check out Alley Cat Allies.

OTHER FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Can FIV cats go outside?

It is recommended that you keep your FIV- positive cat indoors to prevent the spread of disease.  However, especially among community cats, it is becoming more accepted that as long as a cat has been neutered or spayed, he or she can be released back into the community.

Can FIV cats be cured?

Currently, there is no cure for FIV, however, a positive test is not a death sentence!  If your cat has been diagnosed with the disease, talk to your vet about treatment options and supportive care measures.