FIV in Cats

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV or Cat AIDS)

What is FIV or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus?
Known as FIV or cat AIDS, FIV is an infectious disease caused by a retrovirus belonging to the  lentivirus family. It is in the same family as the FeLV virus, and is similar to the HIV virus in humans. FIV infects both domesticated cats, lions, tigers, pumas & cheetahs. FIV attacks the cells of the immune system, leading to FAIDS (feline acquired immune deficiency syndrome). This compromises the cat's ability to fight off infections. It was first discovered in 1986 in a colony of cats in California, and is now found worldwide.

What is a virus?
A virus is an ultramicroscopic infectious agent which consists of either DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein coat. It is only able to replicate inside living cells. The phrase "a piece of bad news wrapped in protein" is a very well known saying regarding viruses. Viruses are not living organisms, they don't respirate, process nutrients or generate waste products.

What does FIV do & what are the symptoms?
FIV attacks the cat's immune system which makes it vulnerable to secondary bacterial, viral, fungal & protazoal infections.
Stage 1: Once inside the body, FIV is carried to the regional lymph nodes where it replicates in the white blood cells known as T lymphocytes (CD4+ lymphocyte). It then spreads to other lymph nodes throughout the body. At this time there may be an acute illness which is characterised by fever, leukopenia, anaemia, malaise & swollen lymph nodes, lasting a few weeks. During this initial stage it may go unnoticed that the cat is unwell.
Stage 2: This is the asymptomatic phase which can last for many years. During this stage cat appears healthy & is able to lead a normal life.
Stage 3: As we've already discussed, FIV destroys the T lymphocytes, these cells are required for the proper functioning of the immune system.  Eventually when enough T lymphocytes have been destroyed, the immune system loses it's ability to fight off opportunistic infections & signs of immunodeficiency develop.
Cats show a range of symptoms in this stage, these symptoms may vary from cat to cat. Some of which may include:
  • Weight loss
  • Poor coat condition
  • Anemia (a decrease in number of red blood cells)
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Gingivitis & stomatitis (inflammation of the mucous lining)
  • Diarrhoea
  • Chronic or recurrent infections of the skin, eyes, urinary tract, respiratory tract etc.
  • Cancer

How is FIV transmitted?
The virus is present in large quantities in the cat's saliva, and the most common mode of transmission is via bite wounds. Free roaming(stray), entire male cats are at greater risk as they are more likely to become involved in territorial fighting. Occasionally FIV is passed onto kittens who's mother is FIV positive. This may happen either in utero or via infected milk. Cats don't become infected via mutual grooming, nor will the act of mating, although the biting that goes along with mating may pass on the virus.

How is FIV diagnosed?

FIV is diagnosed based on history, clinical signs & a blood test known as ELISA (enzyme-linked  immunosorbent assay), which detects antibodies to FIV. It is possible to get false positive or false negatives from these results for the following reasons:
False positive:
If a cat has received the FIV vaccine it will have a positive test result. Kittens born to FIV infected mothers may have received antibodies from their mothers milk. This doesn't mean that the kitten has FIV, just that it's received antibodies to FIV. Kittens who test positive should be re-tested at a later date.
False negative:
It usually takes several weeks for antibodies to FIV to appear in the blood, if the cat is tested prior to this it will show a negative result. If the cat is in the later stages of infection it may not be producing antibodies. If your cat has tested positive to FIV but you are not sure if it has had the vaccine, or want to be sure it does/doesn't have the virus then you may be able to request a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which will be able to detect the presence of FIV DNA in the blood.

How is FIV treated?
There is no cure for FIV, once a cat has it, it's for life. The goal is to provide supportive care to the infected cat. This may include;
  • Regular veterinary check-ups.
  • Maintaining proper parasite control.
  • Ensuring that prompt veterinary attention is sought at the first sign of illness.
  • Feed a high quality, premium diet.
  • Limiting their exposure to disease by keeping them indoors & away from neighbourhood or stray cats.
  • The use of anti bacterial & anti fungal drugs
  • Maintain a proper vaccination regime to protect your cat from other infectious diseases.
  • Blood transfusions may be necessary in stage 3.
  • High calorie supplements may be necessary in stage 3.

Prevention of FIV:
Desexing of all pets, not allowing them to free roam & testing all cats used for breeding & giving all cats the FIV vaccine. This will help reduce as many numbers as possible.

Which cats are most at risk of FIV?
Un-desexed, free roaming(stray)males are at the greatest risk of FIV. Any cat allowed to free roam is at risk of catching FIV.

Can FIV positive & FIV negative cats live in the same household?
The general opinion is yes, this is okay as long as there isn't any fighting between the cats. As FIV positive cats are more susceptible to opportunistic infections it is important to ensure the health & vaccination status of ALL cats in the household. Others suggest either keeping FIV positive cats isolated from FIV negative cats or rehoming the FIV positive cat in a single cat household. Your veterinarian is the best person to speak to in this regard.

Can I catch FIV from my cat?
No it is not possible to catch FIV from your cat, nor is it possible for your cat to catch HIV from a human. While both viruses come from the same family, they are species specific.