What is FIV and How is it Transmitted?:
FIV (Feline Immumodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus in the same family as the human AIDS virus, with a few significant differences. It is estimated that in the United States, 2% of cats are infected with the FIV virus. Saliva to blood (deep biting wounds) is generally accepted as the primary source of spreading the virus. Transmission by casual contact is much rarer, although not completely ruled out. Another, less common means of transmission is from the mother cat (Queen) to her kittens during gestation, during birth, or by nursing.
How is FIV Diagnosed?:
In the case of my own FIV+ cat, Shannon, the fact that his white cell count had dropped significantly during treatment for a severe bladder infection, was an indication for the FIV/FELV blood tests.
The initial test was the ELISA, which tests both for FIV antibodies and FeLV. Since there can be false positives with the ELISA test, an initial positive for FIV is followed up by a laboratory test, such as the Western Blot test, which confirms that antibodies to FIV are present in the blood.
At-risk cats (those who go outdoors) should be tested annually. All new cats should be tested before bringing them into the home, but kittens should not be tested before six months, because newborn kittens can show "false positive" antibodies from the mother cat.
How is FIV Prevented?:
Keep Cats Indoors
Most undiagnosed FIV+ cats are ferals, and to prevent deep biting wounds incurred by fights with these cats, owned cats must not be allowed to roam free. This is the only sure way of preventing this disease in a cat.
Although an FIV vaccine has been developed, it is not recommended for a number of reasons.
- It does not protect from all strains of the FIV virus
- It can result in VAS (vaccine-associated carcinomas)
- It can result in a false positive test for FIV, putting cats in danger of euthanization if picked up by animal control
How is FIV Treated?:
While FIV cannot be cured, it can be managed, in a program of cooperation between veterinarian and the owner. For cats with no other symptoms, and otherwise generally good health, this might simply be a matter of ensuring he gets a sound diet, possibly with added vitamins, anti-oxidants, and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as prompt, aggressive treatment of infections and other conditions as they crop up. Even flea control is important, as fleas transmit a number of other parasites such as the Haemabartonella. Also, flea bites themselves can become infected, which would be a cause for concern.
Other, more homeopathic treatments may include Interferon, which helps by stimulating the production of certain types of immune system cells needed to help keep the virus under control.
Joel Kehler, whose cat, Bud, was FIV+, did a ton of research which culminated in his own therapy program which ultimately involved a "cocktail" of five herbs. Kehler documented his early experimental treatments in a guest article on this site, and the full story may be found on his " Bud's FIV Therapy" web site.
FIV is NOT a Death Sentence for Cats:
It is important to realize that a positive test for FIV is not a mandatory death sentence. With a high protein diet and aggressive treatment of secondary infections, an FIV-positive cat can lead a reasonably normal life span. Dr. Mike Richards says, "Feline immundeficiency virus infection does not lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in cats as often as human immunodeficiency virus leads to AIDS in people."
The largest threat to FIV-positive cats is secondary infection, such as bladder, skin, and upper respiratory infections. Kidney failure is also frequently seen in cats with FIV. These secondary infections should be treated promptly and aggressively in any cat, but especially with an FIV+ cat.
My Shannon was not diagnosed until the age of 18, and he lived a reasonably normal life for another full year. One piece of advice bolstered me during that time. A very dear friend told me, "Franny, remember that Shannon does not know that he is sick." Please keep that thought in mind if you find yourself caring for an FIV+ cat.