Written by Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT
If your cat was just diagnosed with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus—more commonly called FIV—don’t despair… but be aware. Let’s discuss what causes FIV in cats, and what kind of prognosis you can expect for FIV+ cats.
What is FIV in cats?
FIV is a highly contagious virus that affects your cat’s immune system. You might compare FIV in cats to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in humans, as they are similar retroviruses. That said, know that FIV is not contagious to you at all. Like HIV, FIV spreads through your cat’s body and reproduces in the white blood cells (specifically the T-lymphocyte)—hence, why it’s often called “kitty AIDS.” I wrote about this in a previous post on FIV vs. FeLV, so make sure to check that out for more information!
How does FIV spread?
Just to reiterate again, FIV cannot spread to humans because it’s species-specific. So you and your two-legged family are safe! However, it can spread to other cats, especially if exchange of bodily fluids (e.g., saliva, blood, sexual transmission, during pregnancy) occurs—this occurs most commonly through biting when territorial intact cats fight outside.
If your cat was just diagnosed with FIV, I recommend getting ALL the cats in your household tested. Ideally, FIV+ cats should be kept indoors and separated from the other cats to minimize transmission and keep everyone safe. That said, spayed or neutered FIV+ cats can live in a home with FIV-negative cats, provided everyone gets along and there is minimal bodily fluid exchange.
Why does FIV make my cat sick?
Just as HIV can put humans more at risk of developing infections, FIV+ cats are more susceptible to infections. FIV causes the immune system to become weakened (called immunosuppression), so your cat’s body can’t fight off infections as well—including bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungal infections. Even normal harmless bacteria (normally present on the body) that healthy cats can fight off can make your cat sick due to immunosuppression.
Thankfully, FIV+ cats can live for years (up to a decade or longer)—but ultimately can succumb to death from secondary infection or even old age-related causes in cats.
What are signs of FIV in cats?
Signs of FIV can vary from zero clinical signs (and being diagnosed based on a routine blood screening test) to more serious symptoms. These may include:
- Decreased appetite to complete inappetance
- Inflammation of the gums (e.g., gingivitis) and mouth (e.g., stomatitis) with secondary signs of halitosis, drooling, or chewing abnormally
- Subtle, chronic weight loss
- Chronic gastrointestinal signs (e.g., diarrhea)
- Unkempt, dull haircoat
- Recurrent fever
- Chronic upper respiratory infections (e.g., runny eyes, sneezing, nasal discharge)
- Neurologic signs (e.g., behavioral changes, seizures)
- Chronic ocular infections (e.g., runny eyes, cloudy appearance to the inside of the eye, conjunctivitis or “pink eye”)
- Chronic skin problems (e.g., hair loss, thin coat, redness, itching, secondary bacterial infections)
- Enlarged lymph nodes or swellings on the body
- Urinary problems
How do you keep FIV+ cats healthy for as long as possible?
As a veterinarian and cat parent, I want your FIV+ cats to live as long as possible. While FIV+ cats may not live to the same lifespan as a completely healthy cat, there are several things you can do to keep your FIV+ cat healthy and thriving for as long as possible. Here are 6 steps to follow.
Keep your cat indoors
Make sure to keep all your cats exclusively indoors, as this helps minimize infections that they can get from outside.
Routine veterinary care
Make sure your cat is up to date on vaccines and gets a twice-a-year examination with your veterinarian. Yup, you heard me right—not just once a year, but twice a year. This is really important to help pick up on infections or problems as soon as possible, since your cat’s immune system is more vulnerable. You also want to make sure your cat is on appropriate preventive medication like deworming medication, heartworm medication, and flea and tick medication, as if they get infected, it will be harder for their body to fight off. I also recommend getting annual blood work in FIV+ cats to make sure the white and red blood cell count, kidney and liver function, protein levels, and salt balance are normal each year.
Keep your other cats healthy
As for the other cats in the household? If your other cats are FIV negative, you want to make sure to keep your healthy cats on an annual examination schedule and up to date on vaccines. While they are healthy, they can potentially spread infection to your FIV+ cat, putting him or her at risk!
Make sure to provide appropriate environmental enrichment and the right resources for each cat in your household—in other words, the purrrfect living situation for each cat! This should include a bed, scratching post, water and food bowls, and a litter box. Something as simple as having the correct number of litter boxes or a self-cleaning Litter-Robot that provides a fresh bed of litter every single time can help prevent exposure to other cats’ bodily fluids.
Make sure your cat is on an AAFCO-approved cat food that is appropriate for their age. As dental disease and gingivitis are more prevalent in FIV+ cats, you want to make sure your cat is eating well. With FIV+ cats, you want to avoid feeding uncooked or raw food, as your cat is much more vulnerable to secondary food-borne bacterial (e.g., Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter) or parasitic infections from the food.
Pick up on clinical signs as soon as possible
Fighting off secondary infections is much harder for FIV+ cats. As soon as you notice signs of abnormal drinking, decreased appetite, inappropriate urination, weight loss, lethargy, or anything abnormal, get to a vet immediately for a blood test and workup… even if it’s in the middle of the night. That’s because something as “simple” as a urinary tract infection (UTI) can rapidly progress to a kidney infection and cause a more severe systemic body infection in an FIV+ cat.
Keep in mind that the prognosis for FIV is much better than the more deadly Feline Leukemia (FeLV) virus. Remember, cats can live with FIV for a much longer period of time—but it’s a MUST to keep them as healthy as possible!
Photo by Michael Sum on Unsplash