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FIV in Cats, A Practical Guide.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) affects approximately 3% of cats in the United States. But exactly what is FIV in cats and how can you tell if your cat has become infected? 

What is FIV in cats?

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FIV is a complex retrovirus. You can compare it to  HIV in humans. (Not the same as feline HIV) Once infected, this virus attacks the white blood cells of a cat’s immune system and can damage or kill the cells. Without a healthy immune system, cats become more at risk of infections. Cats with FIV are more likely to develop life-threatening diseases caused by viruses and bacteria. 

Humans and other species of animals can’t contract FIV from cats, but other cats can.

Is FIV permanent?

Once a cat contracts FIV, the infection is a permanent threat because there is still no cure and no reliable FIV vaccine. 

What are the symptoms of FIV? 

Unfortunately, not all conditions of FIV have symptoms. FIV can take months and even years to become noticeable to pet owners. Your cat could carry the virus without you knowing or their body presenting any symptoms. 

Once symptoms start to show, it has advanced to feline immunodeficiency virus-positive (FIV+). FIV+ is like AIDS in humans. It can lead to secondary infections and cancer, with more significant symptoms. 

Common symptoms

Here are some common symptoms of FIV to watch out for:

  • Development of enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Discharge from the nose or eyes.
  • Constantly being ill, even if the illness seems minor, such as being sick or having short-lived infections.
  • Inflamed gums or oral tissue.
  • Sudden weight loss (2).
  • A high temperature.
  • Weakness, i.e., your cat walking slowly or not moving around as much.
  • Gastrointestinal issues like regular diarrhea.
  • Inflamed nose and eyelid tissue.
  • Eye conditions, such as inflamed cornea and iris or glaucoma.
  • Abnormal sleeping pattern.
  • Drastic behavioral changes that appear negative, such as aggression.
  • Changes in hearing and eyesight.
  • Cancer.
  • Long-term infections in the ear and skin caused by a bacterial infection.
  • Chronic kidney condition.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9xGstPIBz8 (3)

Diagnosing FIV in cats

If you think your cat has any of these symptoms or is at risk of FIV, it’s time to visit your vet. There are several tests your vet may do. 

First, the vet will take a blood sample from your cat. This is to look at the number of antibodies in their blood and determine what their condition is.

A cat’s immune system will develop antibodies against FIV. These antibodies are detected during the testing process. These tests aren’t always 100 % accurate, so you can expect a follow-up test. 

This can include:

  • Sending blood to a laboratory for further testing.
  • Western blotting — looking for a virus via a molecular test.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa93-7S1xY0 (4)

What are the stages of FIV?

An FIV+ prognosis will follow three stages of infection. The first stage, or acute stage, lasts around three to six months. They’ll experience mild symptoms. These include reduced appetite, enlarged lymph nodes, and a fever. 

At this stage, cats are rarely taken to a veterinarian since their symptoms aren’t severe.

Fast forward to the subclinical stage, or latent, asymptomatic stage. In this stage, the immune system begins to deteriorate. A cat can still appear healthy and not develop any further symptoms. This may last from a few months to several years. 

Finally, the chronic or terminal stage. Here the white blood cells decline, and the cat’s immune system cannot fight infection. At this heartbreaking stage, a cat is unlikely to live long. Many vets will recommend humane euthanasia before a cat suffers too much.

Orange kitty saying, hello!

What if a kitten is born with FIV from its mother?

If a diagnosed adult cat gets pregnant, the kittens can test positive for FIV. This is because they will get FIV antibodies from the mother. But, these can clear from their system within six months. Kittens should get tested again at a later date to check if they have the infection.

What is the life expectancy of a cat with FIV?

FIV positive cats can have a normal life expectancy. But, they are more susceptible to life-threatening secondary infections.

The secondary illnesses and infections they pick up will determine their life expectancy. Some FIV positive cats can live for 10 years (5) and beyond and show only mild or no symptoms. Around 18 percent die within five years of contracting an infection.

Is there a cure for feline FIV?

There’s currently no cure for feline FIV. There is a vaccine (6), but there’s huge controversy over its success rate. It also poses other risks to your cat’s health. 

Treatment isn’t the same for all cats with FIV. A vet will decide on a course of action determined by whether the FIV+ cat is showing symptoms or not.

The cat will have regular medical check-ups to see if they’ve developed any infections. 

A vet may try immune-enhancing drugs, medications, and anti-inflammatory drugs to keep a cat from developing secondary infections.  They may also treat the cat with a course of aggressive antibiotics to fight off any infections.

When should you get your cat tested?

If you suspect any of the above common symptoms in your cat, it’s time to get them into veterinary care. There are some other times for you to get your cat tested, too, including:

  • If they’re exposed to a cat with FIV.
  • If your cat suddenly appears sick.
  • Behavioral changes.
  • When you adopt a new cat.

How to care for a cat with FIV

There are many positive steps you can take for cats that have FIV. Here are some essential tips for keeping your cat safe and healthy.

Two FIV cats indoors.

Keep your cat indoors

If your cat has tested positive for FIV, the best thing to do is to keep them indoors. This prevents them from catching other illnesses. 

A new lifestyle change may come as a massive shock if they’re used to roaming outdoors. They’ll make a fuss and attempt to get outside. You must be extra cautious when opening doors to prevent them from escaping.

As hard as it might be for you to resist the cat’s crying, don’t give in. They’ll get used to living life indoors eventually. 

Keep vaccines up to date

Routine vaccinations help to boost your cat’s immune system. This helps prevent them from getting ill. 

Use topical flea medication

Fleas, worms or mites can cause infections and irritations. It’s vital that you protect your cat from them by using a regular specialized treatment from a vet. Many topical flea preventatives also protect against parasites like heartworms and intestinal worms.

Feed your cat a healthy diet

A healthy, balanced diet is a typical treatment plan for cats who test positive for FIV. This involves a diet that’s high in vitamins, minerals, Omega-3, and Omega-6 fatty acids. 

Cats that test positive for FIV should avoid eating a raw food diet. Especially raw meat because it can be contaminated with bacteria. Salmonella, a type of bacteria found in raw poultry, could cause serious illness in a cat with a weakened immune response. 

Vitamins A, C, and E are high in antioxidants. Vitamin A is good to produce more white blood cells that can help destroy viruses and infections.

Consult your vet for advice on a prescribed diet for your cat. Including recommendations on cat food brands. Cat food should be rich in nutrients and antioxidants to keep your cat as healthy as possible.

Reduce your cat’s stress

With an FIV cat, you’ll have to make some crucial changes to your cat’s routine. Keep them indoors and schedule regular trips to the vet. Despite these changes, try to limit other disruptions in their life as cats don’t deal well with changes. A change in a daily routine, loud noises, or moving furniture can heighten your cat’s anxiety (8) leading to stress. 

Have your cat spayed or neutered

Spaying or neutering your cat will reduce their urges to fight or roam around outside. It will also reduce their anxiety when they have to transition to life indoors.

How is FIV spread in cats?

The virus is present in a cat’s saliva, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid. FIV doesn’t survive on surfaces or outside of the body for very long. Unlike human HIV, FIV cannot be sexually transmitted.

It’s most often spread through saliva from the bite of an infected cat. The virus is usually transmitted when cats fight. And it can also be passed from mothers to their kittens. 

FIV+ cat getting love from a little boy.

How do I help my cat to avoid getting FIV?

Prevention is key. Take the following steps to limit the chances of your cat contracting FIV.

Protect and love your cat

Provide a safe and loving environment for your cat. This will make them feel calmer and less stressed out. Less stress =  stronger immune system.

If you have a male cat, get him neutered. This reduces aggressive and territorial behavior resulting in fewer fights with other cats. 

Keep your cat in at night

It may seem impossible to put restrictions on when your cat can and can’t go outside. But keeping them indoors at night will make them less likely to fight.

Cats have evolved to be nocturnal creatures and catch their prey (9) at night. With other cats doing the same thing, they’re more likely to fight and get the virus than if they’re safe at home. Seal their cat flap before bed to prevent them from going out.

Monitor your cat’s health

Get regular vet checks. Some vets recommend getting a check-up once a month for cats with feline FIV. This is to check for symptoms and complications. If you notice behavioral changes take your cat to the vet.

Here are some ways to track your cat’s health:

  • Check their weight. Have they suddenly lost a lot of weight?
  • Examine their coat to see if it’s shiny and full.
  • Look at their ears. They should be dry and clean.
  • How are their eyes? They should be bright with no discharge.
  • Open their mouth. Check their gums aren’t inflamed or bleeding.
  • Inspect their claws. Do they look healthy, or are they brittle?
  • Check their breathing. Their breaths should be regular and smooth.
  • Examine their mobility. Is your cat walking like normal?
Person holding a cat's paw.

Should you adopt a cat with FIV?

Yes! FIV cats can still make great pets, though, some might be more vulnerable than others. You’ll save a life and help them feel loved and protected.

If you already have a non-infected cat, it’s possible for both to live together. Since FIV spreads through bites, scratches, and wounds, you’ll have to keep an eye on them. Make sure they don’t fight or become aggressive.

If you already have a cat, make sure they’re healthy before adopting any FIV cats. Then, get regular health checks for both your FIV and non-FIV cat. 

If the FIV cat starts showing symptoms, it will be more vulnerable to infections. Be sure you protect them from other pets to lower the risk of disease or harmful bacteria.

Since FIV can spread through saliva, each cat should have it’s own separate food and water bowl. Try to keep each cat’s food in a different room to limit the chances of cross-contamination. For peace of mind, wash cat bedding regularly and replace toys often. 

What happens if an FIV cat bites you?

If an FIV cat bites you, you don’t need to worry about getting FIV because the virus can’t be transmitted to humans.   

What happens if an FIV cat bites another animal?

Other species of pets like dogs and ponies, or farm animals, such as sheep and goats, aren’t at risk of infection from a cat with FIV. There’s no need to worry about the virus infecting them.

Summary

Cats are beautiful, mysterious, entertaining creatures. They deserve love and care. Although it’s impossible to keep them safe from every illness and infection, keeping your FIV cat indoors will go a long way.

Look out for common FIV symptoms. If your FIV cat is starting to show symptoms, contact your veterinarian for guidance.

Sources

  1. https://www.royalcanin.com/uk/cats/health-and-wellbeing/common-cat-digestive-problems
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9xGstPIBz8
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa93-7S1xY0
  4. https://www.marvistavet.com/owning-a-feline-immunodeficiency-virus-positive-fiv-cat.pml
  5. https://www.thesprucepets.com/fiv-vaccine-for-cats-552504
  6. https://www.thesprucepets.com/stress-in-cats-552164
  7. https://www.preventivevet.com/cats/cat-behaviors-at-night

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Alina Prax
Latest posts by Alina Prax (see all)
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