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Feline Immunodeficiency Virus in Cats

Updated on January 18, 2009

FIV is not necesserily a death sentence in cats

Discovered in a Northern California Cattery back in 1986, the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus commonly abbreviated by the acronym FIV, is a serious and potentially fatal disease of cats. Somewhat related to the human AIDS virus (HIV), the feline version is species specific, meaning that it cannot cross species, therefore, only strictly affecting felines.

If your cat was just diagnosed with FIV, you may have a lot of questions about how your cat got FIV, what to expect, what will happen and most of all, what you cat's life expectancy will be. In such case, can take a deep breath as FIV is not necessarily a death sentence, rather, with appropriate care and lots of love, many FIV cats may still lead pretty normal happy lives.

What causes FIV?

FIV is a condition commonly found in outdoor cats mostly between the age of 5-10 years. Because its transmission occurs mostly through cat bites and scratches, unneutered male cats are particularly prone due to their nature of getting involved in cat fights. Other methods of transmission such as sharing food and water bowls, mutual grooming appear to be less likely to cause FIV, however they still remain a possibility. FIV may also in rare cases be transmitted from mother to kitten via uterus, birth or nursing.

How is FIV diagnosed?

All outdoor cats should be tested for FIV. An effective test is the ELISA test (Enzyme-lined immunosorbent assay), which effectively tests for FIV and FELV. However, further blood tests may be necessary (Western Blood Immunoassay or IFA) to confirm the diagnosis should an ELISA test return positive.

Kittens may obtain false positive results due to the interference of the antibodies carried on from their mother's milk. Such cats should be retested once they are about 6 months of age, when such antibodies will have left their body. Cats that have been vaccinated for FIV will also produce false positives. All cats living outdoors and never vaccinated against FIV should undergo FIV testing.

False negatives may occur when the cat has recently acquired the disease. It may take an average of 8 weeks from the day of exposure to an FIV cat, for the cat to display a positive result. False negatives also occur when the disease has gone too far, causing the cat to no longer create antibodies.

What are the symptoms of FIV?

Symptoms generally appear 4-6 weeks after being exposed to an FIV affected cat. Affected cats will develop a fever and swollen lymph nodes. White blood cell count will be low because the virus tends to destroy white blood cells. Affected cats may also develop skin infections, diarrhea and anemia. The disease will then subside from several months to up to three years and then relapse from an acute to chronic form. Chronic FIV symptoms will include recurrent diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, upper respiratory infections, mouth and gum disease, ear infections and urinary tract infections.

What is the treatment of FIV?

Because cats affected by FIV have a compromised immune system they should be fed a high quality complete cat food that provides vitamins and minerals. Supplements that boost the immune system may be helpful. FIV affected cats must be kept as healthy as possible avoiding any possible chance of infections. While there is no actual treatment for FIV, the general protocol consists in providing supportive care.

Antibiotics will be prescribed in case of bacterial infections. Parasites will be kept strictly under control. Nutritional support will aid the compromised immune system. Eventual tumors will be removed. Fluids will be administered in dehydrated cats.

Drugs used to treat HIV have been used in some cases to help cats affected by FIV. Interferon and Zidovudine are a couple that have been used however, they tend to cause many side effects.

What is the prognosis of cats affected by FIV?

Cats may live symptom less for many months or years before the disease becomes chronic and produces more significant  and debilitating symptoms. With supportive care and nutritional support infections and tumors may be kept at bay.

While there are no actual treatment for FIV, fortunately the disease can be prevented by vaccination. All kittens which may spend their lives outdoors or in contact with other cats should be vaccinated against FIV.  As cute as they are, stray kittens should not be introduced to other pet cats living in the home without having them first tested for FIV.



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