Feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, is one of the most common diseases found in domestic cats throughout the world, and many cat owners and shelters face the dilemma of owning a cat who is FIV-positive. While no cure for FIV is currently available, it is preventable through the use of a simple and safe vaccine, and most cats with FIV are able to lead healthy, happy lives.
The history of FIV is complex and fascinating. In 1986, at the height of AIDS paranoia among humans, a few veterinarians noticed that cats sometimes showed symptoms of a disease not entirely unlike HIV. After isolating a few cats who showed these symptoms, veterinarians became aware that the virus not only existed, but was shockingly widespread in cats throughout the world. As many as 11% of cats around the world have FIV, and it is especially common in cats who also have feline leukemia.
It is still not known how long the FIV virus has existed, but it was probably infecting cats long before its discovery. Since there was no research into the cause of immunodeficiency in cats until a similar virus broke out in human populations, we have no way of knowing if FIV was at one point more common or less common than it is now.
Although it is in the same family as HIV and behaves in a similar manner, the FIV virus is not transmissible to humans through any form of contact (and HIV is not transmissible to cats, either). Like HIV, FIV is species-specific and not highly contagious, and can usually be transmitted only through bites, sexual contact, or between a mother cat and her kittens. Because it trasmits most often through bites, male cats and free-roaming cats are at an especially high risk of contracting FIV.
Cats are tested by FIV through the use of a simple blood test that measures the presence of FIV antibodies in the cat’s bloodstream. The test is not entirely accurate, and may fail to catch early antibodies in a cat who is newly infected. It can also yield false positives, since any cat who has received the FIV vaccine will display antibodies in spite of not having an active infection. Likewise, some kittens may have antibodies from their mothers, even if they are not actually infected. Kittens under six months should be retested if they display antibodies.
The FIV vaccine was introduced in 2002 and is now widely prescribed by veterinarians, as it is offers a roughly 82% chance of protection against the virus. Some jurisdictions even mandate FIV vaccination of cats, and some nonprofit programs provide the vaccine to stray and feral cats to prevent further outbreak. Vaccination has provided a wonderful and inexpensive safeguard for cats who are at risk of contracting FIV.
Like HIV, FIV can remain dormant for months or even years before the infected cat shows any noticeable symptoms. Rashes, respiratory infections, dental decay, diarrhea, and eye problems are among the first and most commons symptoms to affect FIV-positive cats. As the virus progresses, it often leads to pneumonia, spinal infection, weight loss, and, ultimately, death.
While the outlook may seem grim, some cats with FIV are still able to lead happy and healthy lives for several years after becoming infected. Cats with FIV should be protected from injury and infection, and should absolutely not be allowed to roam freely– if they roam outdoors, they are likely to transmit the virus to other cats or injure themselves, leaving the FIV-positive cat prone to infection. A balanced and healthy diet, along with plenty of exercise, can help a cat with FIV live life to the fullest. FIV infection alone is by no means a reason to euthanize a cat.
Treatments for FIV are relatively new and experimental, and no cure is available. To prevent infection, at owners should have their pets vaccinated for FIV at their veterinarian’s recommendation, and should keep all yearly check-ups to insure continued health for their pets. If you believe or know that your cat is infected with FIV, talk to your cat’s vet to determine the best route of treatment. Together, you can guarantee your cat the wonderful life that he is entitled to.
Source: Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. 15 Jan 09.