FIV and your cat - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a viral disease which affects the immune system of domestic cats. Whilst FIV cannot be transferred to humans, it acts in the same way as the human form of HIV, destroying the immune system and leaving a cat susceptible to infections and disease. Once the cat has been infected, FIV can then progress to feline acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, otherwise known as Feline AIDs.

How is FIV spread?

FIV is spread mostly by bite wounds inflicted while fighting with other cats but can also be transmitted by a mother cat to her kittens across the placenta or through her milk. It is reported that between 14% and 29% of cats in Australia test FIV positive. Outdoor cats are at the highest risk of disease, especially if they fight with other cats.

How long will it take my cat to show symptoms?

After infection there is a period of variable length during which the virus lives in the cat’s body but may not cause the cat to become unwell. The average length of time between becoming infected, and the start of symptoms related to the virus, is 7 years but may be as long as 10 years, or as little as less than a year.

What are the symptoms of FIV?

Some of the symptoms of FIV include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen lymph nodes

These signs of the initial signs of infection, often go unnoticed and in most circumstances the cat will recover and appear to be healthy for some time.

Eventually however, an infected cat will succumb to other diseases as a result of their depleted immune system.

Other diseases, illnesses or symptoms include:-

  • Dental problems and inflamed gums
  • Weight loss and a decline in body condition
  • Cancers such as lymphoma, carcinomas and sarcomas
  • Infections of organ systems related to immune suppression (this can occur in the respiratory tract, skin, kidneys, urinary tract and gastrointestinal system)
  • Anaemia (low numbers of red blood cells)
  • Low numbers of other cells including white blood cells and platelets
  • Behavioural abnormalities (dementia, hiding, roaming, rage, depression, inappropriate urination and defaecation)
  • Inflammation of the eye

As the disease progresses a cat’s immune system becomes too weak to fight off other infections or disease and as a result, they will usually die from one of these subsequent infections.

How do I tell if my cat has been infected?

A blood test can tell us if your cat as been exposed to the virus from 60 days after the initial infection. We will normally do this screening test in our clinic laboratory.

Kittens less than 6 months of age can be tested for FIV but they may need to be re-tested if they come back with a positive result. This is because antibodies they receive from their mother’s milk can interfere with their test results.

Is there a treatment for FIV?

Unfortunately there has been no successful treatment found for FIV infection. All we can do is stay alert for the early signs of disease or illness. Any infection a FIV positive cat contracts will be harder for them to fight due to their weakened immune system, and must be treated immediately. This is also the reason why infected cats need regular wellness visits with their veterinarian.

How do I protect my cat from FIV?

There are a number of things you can do to prevent infection:-

  • Vaccination - if your cat has been tested for FIV and their result is negative, they can be vaccinated against the virus.
  • Keep your cat indoors or in an enclosure to limit their exposure to other cats
  • Desex your cat to decrease the chance of them roaming and fighting with other cats
  • If you are introducing a new cat to your house, test the new cat for FIV first.

Vaccinating against FIV

The FIV vaccination consists of an initial course of 3 vaccinations 2-4 weeks apart, then a yearly booster.

Cats must be tested for FIV first and must be negative in order for them to be vaccinated.

What should I do if my cat is diagnosed with FIV?

With the correct care many infected cats continue to live fulfilling lives. To give your cat the best chance for a healthy future we recommend the following:-

Dietary recommendations

Avoid giving your cat raw meat, raw eggs and unpasteurised milk. Instead make sure they receive a well balanced, good quality diet. Feel free to ask us for more information on a nutritional plan for your cat.

Routine parasite control

Ensure your cat has a strict parasite control regime protecting them from intestinal worms, fleas, ticks and heartworm. They should receive three monthly protection from worms, and monthly protection from fleas and heartworm.

Yearly vaccination

Your cat should be vaccinated every year to protect him/her from the most common cat diseases.

Wellness visits at least every six months

Your veterinarian needs to see your cat at least every six months for a full physical examination. They will also conduct blood and urine tests regularly to pick up early changes associated with disease or illness. If any changes are detected your veterinarian will adopt an aggressive approach for diagnosis and treatment.

Responsible ownership of an FIV infected cat

FIV positive cats should be kept indoors both to limit their exposure to infections as well as to prevent spread of FIV to other cats. Any other cats in the household, if tested negative for FIV need to be vaccinated to give them the best chance of protection. If your FIV infected cat is not desexed it is also important for them to undergo this procedure to prevent further infection of kittens.

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