Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is the feline equivalent of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Once your cat contracts the virus, it may go undetected for years.

What is the health risk of FIV?

FIV compromises your cat’s immune system so that everyday exposure to what can be harmless viruses, bacteria, and fungi can cause serious illnesses. FIV positive cats can live with the virus for years once diagnosed. 

Cats most at risk of contracting the virus are undesexed, unvaccinated cats who go outdoors. The most effective ways to transmit the virus is to be bitten by a cat infected with the virus. Indoor cats are much less likely to become infected.

How is it spread?

The most common way of transmission is through bites from another FIV positive cat. Rates of contracting the virus are also higher if your cat is already sick or has a reduced immunity. Unlike the human equivalent, the virus is not as likely to be transmitted through sexual contact. It is also rare for a female cat to transmit the virus to her kittens.

What happens in the body?

During the early stages of the infection, the virus reproduces in white blood cells in different lymph nodes. This may cause enlarged lymph nodes and/or fever; but you may not notice these symptoms. The cat’s health may progressively decline with time or they may have bouts of illness with healthy periods in between. Sometimes, years go by after initial infection without any symptoms.

Symptoms of FIV or conditions include:

  • Deteriorating condition of their coat
  • Persistent fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inflammation of the gums and mouth, and dental disease
  • Frequent infections of the bladder, upper respiratory tract, skin, and eyes
  • Persistent diarrhoea
  • Behavioral changes
  • Certain neurological disorders
  • Weight loss
  • Blood diseases

Diagnosis and detection

A blood test can detect FIV in your cat. However, if in the early stages of infection, the test may come back negative as low numbers of antibodies are not yet detectable. Your vet may recommend a second test to rule out the possibility of a false negative result.

FIV vaccines are available, however it is important to note that no vaccine is 100% effective. The best way to prevent your cat from being infected (or if FIV positive, infecting other cats) is to prevent exposure.

Even though FIV is like HIV and causes the same syndrome as AIDS in cats, there is no current evidence indicating that FIV can affect humans. If you have more than one cat in your household, you should have them tested as well. It is possible that they can live together without transmission of FIV if they are peaceful with each other (they don’t fight), but ideally, they should be separated as the risk of transmission still exists even if they don’t fight. 

Treating and managing FIV

Presently, there is no cure for FIV. You also do not definitively know how long your cat will survive. But it is possible that your cat may lead a seemingly normal life for years if the disease is managed well. However, once your cat has experienced one or more severe illnesses, or persistent symptoms, the outcome is less positive.

If your cat is FIV+, he/she should be desexed, and kept indoors to reduce transmission of FIV but also to lessen your cat’s exposure to environmental organisms that would incite illness in your immune-compromised kitty.

Your cat should be fed a nutritious and well-balanced diet such as a high-quality kibble/ wet canned food. Avoid raw and unpasteurised foods because this increases their exposure to bacterial and parasitic infections they can no longer fend off.

Your cat should be examined by your veterinarian every six months, as your vet can record whether your cat’s health is starting to deteriorate or not. The first indicator is usually weight loss. These exams are more important for an FIV+ cat than a seemingly healthy cat. Tell your vet if you observe any changes in your cat’s condition.

Some antiretroviral therapies have had positive results in some FIV+ cats in helping to reduce seizures or mouth inflammations. There is no definite evidence that they will prolong the life of your cat, however.