Understanding FIV in Cats

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus: Not an Automatic Death Sentence

Girl and cat
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Although it's disappointing news, a positive test for FIV is not a mandatory death sentence for a precious cat. With a high-protein diet and aggressive treatment of secondary infections, an FIV-positive cat can lead a reasonably normal life for a number of years after diagnosis.

What is FIV?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV, is a retrovirus in the same family as the human AIDS virus, but it only appears in cats. A cat generally develops FIV after being bitten by an infected feline, though it can also be transmitted from a FIV-positive cat to her kittens during pregnancy, birth, or while nursing.

It's incredibly rare for a cat to develop FIV by sharing food bowls or simply being around an FIV-positive cat—so there's no need to be worried if you have one cat in your household that's FIV-positive and another that's not. However, it's prudent to test all cats in the household if one is diagnosed is FIV, just to be sure.

Outdoor cats are most at risk of acquiring the virus, and the best way to prevent infection with FIV virus is to ensure that your cat stays indoors.

Symptoms of FIV often don't show up until years after infection. They can include:

  • Weight loss
  • Dishelved coat or fur loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Conjunctivitis, or inflammation of the eye
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Change in behavior
  • Urinating outside the litter box or straining to urinate

There is a vaccine for FIV; however, it's not considerd incredibly effective, and it will result in a positive blood test for the disease. Talk to your vet about whether the vaccine is right for your pet.

Diagnosing FIV

Any number of these symptoms should add up to taking your cat to the vet for testing. The only way to diagnose FIV is through a blood test that looks for specific antibodies to the virus. they show up anywhere between two to weeks after exposure to FIV.

If there's the suspicion that a mother cat transmitted FIV to her kittens, a test won't be accurate until around 6 months of age. At this time, the mother's antibodies will have cleared from the kittens' systems, and the blood test will be able to detect infection.

After an FIV Diagnosis

An FIV-positive cat lives for a median of five years after diagnosis, according to the Cornell University Feline Health Center. If your cat has been diagnosed as FIV-positive, work closely with your veterinarian to design a management program. Cats with FIV, whether or not they are displaying symptoms, have a weakened immune system, so they should be closely monitored for secondary infections.

For cats with no other symptoms that in otherwise generally good health, a treatment program might simply be a matter of ensuring he gets a sound diet, possibly with added vitamins, antioxidants, and Omega-3 or Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as prompt, aggressive treatment of infections and other conditions as they crop up.

There's no cure for FIV, nor is there a specific medical treatment for the disease, even as the cat's health declines. A vet might try anti-inflammatory drugs, immune-enhancing drugs, and medication for secondary infections to keep the cat as helath as possible.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.