Feline Immunodeficiency Virus – FIV
Feline immunodeficiency virus is a virus that suppresses a cat’s immune system, the same way HIV does in humans. The two viruses are similar, and many things we know about being HIV+ also applies to a FIV+ cat. However, FIV infects strictly cats and is not transmittable to humans. FIV is in the same family as the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), a virus that also suppresses the immune system and causes similar secondary diseases. However, FeLV can be transmitted through casual contact such as licking and grooming, whereas FIV is most commonly transmitted through deep biting wounds. While FIV can be found in the bodily secretions of an FIV+ cat, generally it cannot be transmitted via sexual contact or from mother to kitten.
Much the same as the human immunodeficiency virus, a cat that is tested to be FIV positive does not show symptoms right away. The asymptomatic period can be artificially prolonged, and it is possible for a FIV+ cat to live to a normal life span without developing any symptoms. Over time, secondary infections become more likely, and small illnesses becomes life threatening as a result of the weakening immune system. If these secondary infections are caught promptly they can be treated and the animal’s life can be prolonged.
There is no known cure for FIV, and an FIV+ cat will require special care for the rest of its life. A vaccine has been developed, however its efficacy is still in question, and a vaccinated animal will always test positive regardless of its status of protection or infection. There are also concerns that the vaccine might stimulate tumour growth. Before a more effective and safe vaccine is developed, transmission of FIV can be only be curbed by prevention of cat fights and keeping the cats indoors.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Early symptoms of the infection are vague and often missed by the owners. They can include general symptoms such as loss of appetite, fatigue, and weight loss. As the infection progresses an animal may have a fever, and have swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may not occur until years after the initial infection. In later stages the infected animal develops inflammation in the oral mucus tissue, the eye, and sometimes cancer.
A screening blood test can usually be done at a vet’s office; further confirmation can be reached with a Western blot test.
Since there is no cure for FIV, the only thing owners can do for an FIV+ cat is to prolong the asymptomatic period, and to provide a safe environment in which the animal is less likely to contract other diseases. It might be helpful to supplement the diet of FIV+ cats with immune system stimulating agents such as Interferon Alpha, although the effects are not definitive. It is also important to keep FIV+ cats indoors, to prevent the infected cats from spreading the virus by fighting and biting other cats. It is possible to have an FIV+ cat living with other uninfected cats, if owners provide close supervision to ensure that no biting occurs. As is with any disease, prevention is the most effective way of fighting the virus. FIV can be completely avoided by keeping cats indoors and out of situations where cat fights might occur.
Young, intact male cats are especially at risk for FIV since they are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours and receive bites from other cats. Neutering can decrease the aggressiveness and decrease the likelihood of fighting-related injury. Again, the most effective way to avoid all possible scenarios where infection might occur, is to keep cats indoors from the beginning.