Firstly, FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) should NOT be confused with FeLV (Feline Leukaemia) - they are two very different viruses. They are often mentioned together due to the 'snap' tests carried out by vets, but they differ greatly in how they affect a cat, and it's expected lifespan. FeLV is a serious risk to a cat's health and longevity, whereas FIV is not. To find out about FeLV go here: Feline Leukaemia
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) has
been associated with cats for many years, although it was only labelled
as such as recently
1986. The virus depletes the number of white blood cells, which
eventually makes the cat less able to fight off infection. However, because it is such a slow acting virus many
cats can enjoy a normal lifespan with no apparent health problems
resulting from the virus.
FIV is species specific. It can only be transmitted from cat to cat, not to humans or other animals.
FIV belongs to the same group as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
and for this reason has received much greater attention than it would
otherwise have done. The mere mention of FIV, and the fact that
it is sometimes inaccurately known as 'Feline Aids', strikes
unnecessary terror into
the heart of many cat-owners, so it is worth taking time to consider
the facts dispassionately. Firstly, the
viral strains used in laboratories on experimental cats were very virulent,
and much previously published information is based on this. However,
FIV strains in cats living normal lives tend to be much more benign,
and may never cause disease.
The virus is present in the blood and saliva of infected cats. But,
like HIV, it is a very 'fragile' virus, and cannot survive for long
outside the body. It also requires a high dose to establish an
in another cat. Therefore, it is not easily
passed from cat to cat. The main route of infection is
through biting, when the virus in the saliva of an infected cat is injected
into the blood stream of the cat it bites. Conversely,
a cat which bites an infected cat, is at less risk of being infected,
as the virus would not be injected straight into the blood stream,
although there is still an element of risk.
fight are most likely to be infected. Cat fights
are most likely between entire toms and these are therefore
the group most at risk. Since many feral cats are unneutered and
have to compete for food, there is a higher incidence of FIV in
feral cats. Transmission between cats in a group who do not fight
is unlikely as the virus can only survive a very brief time outside
a cat's body, and it cannot be transmitted indirectly, such
as on food, feeding
equipment, clothes, shoes, hands etc. (unlike the situation with
feline leukaemia). Recent research suggests the likelihood of cats
passing on FIV to
others in the same household is as low as 1-2%.
It has not been proved that the virus is transmitted sexually, although
often the tom cat will hold onto the scruff of the female's neck with
his teeth, so if the skin is punctured at that point, transmission
The take-home message here is to prevent fighting - make sure your cat is neutered!
The only guaranteed way of preventing your cat becoming infected
is to never let it outside, where it might meet other cats. This
drastic, and unnecessary measure, which crucially may reduce the
quality of life for cats who enjoy going outside. It's a bit like
outside your front door just in case you get run over by a bus,
basically the chances are low. The best way of helping to prevent
of infection is to make sure your cat is neutered. As well as being
the most humane way of reducing the future stray population, neutering
reduces the tendency to fight, or to wander. »
Further neutering information.
Signs that a cat has become infected can vary greatly, so it is
not always apparent until a blood test is carried out. Often,
may develop raised lymph nodes around six to eight weeks after
and they may have a high temperature. Sometimes diarrhoea
or conjunctivitis may develop, possibly lasting days or even weeks,
with the cat
then returning to apparent health. Other common signs are gingivitis
inflammation), sneezing, snuffling, a discharge from the nose
or eyes, or kidney failure. The eyes or brain can be affected in
number of cases, resulting in changes in behaviour.
The fact that the virus depletes certain
of the white blood cells (T lymphocytes), in
theory at least,
cat more susceptible to other infections, and it will find it more
difficult to shake them off. This is known as 'immunosuppression' and
is identical to the situation in HIV infection. However, this is purely
theoretical, and in practice many cats do not have any more infections
which are not infected with the virus.
The commonest infection to occur in FIV positive cats is gingivitis
and stomatitis (inflammation of the gums and other parts of the mouth).
However, FIV is not the commonest cause of gingivitis.
This is common in cats
which are fed on an unnatural diet of sloppy canned food. Cats which
are carriers of Calici-virus (one of the cat flu viruses) frequently
suffer from gingivitis, as well as lot of cats which do not carry either
of these viruses.
Whatever the cause, gingivitis is treated
initially with a thorough dental scale and polish plus a course of
anti-biotics and a steroid
drug to suppress the inflammation.
Various other chronic infections may also occur - conjunctivitis,
diarrhoea, skin and respiratory tract infections (rhinitis or bronchitis).
However, these are less common, and again, respond to treatment providing
it is carried on for an adequate time.
A cat who contracts FIV will usually still have a strong immune system for several years after infection, it is only over time, that the effects of the virus may start to show, and even then, most infections can be treated with the appropriate medications. With love and good care however, many FIV+ cats can live normal
lifespans. These days, it's
not unusual to find FIV+ cats reaching 15 years or more.
A ten-year FIV Monitoring Project was carried out at Glasgow Veterinary
School involving 26 cats and the results indicated that a higher
percentage of FIV negative cats died during the period of the study than FIV positive cats, and that FIV infection did not affect the cats' life expectancy. Dr Diane D. Addie (Lecturer in Veterinary Virology, University of Glasgow) said "at least 3 studies in FIV positive cats have shown a life span equal to uninfected cats." A fourteen
year study by Maureen Hutchison B.Sc, BVMS, MRCVS (veterinary adviser
to the Cat Action Trust) found that FIV-positive cats
are more likely to die by being killed in road accidents or to be alive
well into their twilight years than they are to die from any FIV related
Knowing what we now do of the prolonged nature of the condition, euthanasia is totally inappropriate and inhumane. Being killed in a road accident is a far higher risk for a cat than FIV.
FIV in the stray cat population has certainly fuelled much of the unfounded fear surrounding the virus. It is mainly un-neutered toms, fighting over food, females or territory, who pick up and spread the virus. The stray cat has no-one to look after them, and their lifestyle means they are more likely to pick up other infections, which without treatment can escalate. When one of these gets captured and taken to a vet, suffering from any number of secondary infections, it is often too late. It is the nature of a vet's work, that they will see many more ill cats than healthy ones, when in fact, there are very many more healthy FIV cats than ill ones - they just don't need to see the vet. Indeed, many pet cats will already be FIV positive, but their owners are unaware of it due to the cat being perfectly healthy!
Testing: The FIV test routinely carried out
in veterinary practices detects antibodies, which develop four
to six weeks after infection, but this test is often
to whether the cat has the virus. Positive test results
by using this simple 'ELISA' test
(sometimes called a CITE test, or 'COMBO' test,) should
by an IFA test (Immuno-Fluorescent Antibody
Test) or a Western Blot, as quite often false positives can occur.
Some of the ELISA tests are so inaccurate as to make the whole test meaningless,
and are producing 'false positives' (due to reacting with
a variety of other compounds in the cat's blood). According to
the Glasgow Companion Animal Diagnostic Unit web-site (where
they give the results of an on-going survey), up to 7%
of positive results with the ELISA test are negative when checked
more accurate IFA test. Many rescues have given up using
the ELISA test, and are now using the IFA test only, saving
time and money, whilst
IFA test is not
expensive (usually about £25), and will give you a definitive
answer in under a week. To obtain this ask your vet to send a
a testing lab » click here for details of Testing Labs.
Very rarely, false negative results can occur if the test is
done too early for antibodies to have developed, or simply because
of the innacuracy of the ELISA test. Again the IFA test will confirm
with far more accuracy.
Treatment: Treatment consists of dealing with whatever symptoms occur
in the individual cat, such as common infections being
FIV positive cat displays any symptoms of illness, however
minor, it should be taken to a vet promptly. Once established
in a cat's
the virus is permanent, and no proven vaccine* has yet been found.
vaccine was developed in the USA in 2002, but it's reliability has not been determined, and it is not available in the UK. A big disadvantage with the vaccine is that once a cat has been vaccinated, they will automatically test
positive on an FIV test even though they don't have the virus.
healthy FIV positive cat can live for many years, and indeed
can often outlive non-infected cats, but please be aware that
this is not always the case. Due to their
the cat may succumb to illness earlier, and not reach their
normal life expectancy. FIV cats will need prompt veterinary
for even minor symptoms. With good care however, many FIV+ cats can live normal
lifespans. These days, it's
not unusual to find FIV+ cats reaching 15 years or more.
One american study showed that FIV+ cats are far more likely to lose their lives through being euthanised, because no-one was willing / able to offer them a home, than from any effects of the virus.
Cat Chat is keen to promote the adoption of healthy FIV positive cats. It is very encouraging that an increasing number of veterinarians in the UK are realising that healthy FIV positive cats can enjoy a good quality of life, and that euthanasia is both inappropriate and inhumane. Any tom cat found to be FIV positive should be neutered, and fighters managed in such a way that they do not have the necessity or opportunity to fight. Neutering them may be all that is required. It is surprising how many aggressive stray tom cats turn into docile pets when they have been castrated and no longer have to fight for every mouthful of food!
FIV positive cats still find it harder than most to
find new homes, even though in all other respects they are normal,
deserve a chance at a happy life. If you think you might
be able to give
a home to an FIV cat, ask at your local rescue centre » Rescue centres and cat shelters across the UK.
The most recent research carried out at Glasgow University's Companion
Animal Diagnostics indicates that the chances of FIV being passed from
1-2%. This means that
if you have 100 cats (!) in a house with 1 FIV positive cat, only 1
or 2 could be expected to become infected. Even
when FIV was passed on, as in the Glasgow survey, none of the cats
actually died of it. In
another survey a few years ago FIV was not passed from cat to
cat in the same household at all.
The Celia Hammond Animal Trust have been conducting a long-term study at their sanctuary since the late 1990's, where FIV-positive and FIV-negative cats live happily together, grooming each other and sharing food bowls and litter trays. Regular blood tests for the virus are carried out, and to date no cases of transmission have yet been found.
seems no reason, therefore,
not to have FIV positive and negative cats in the same household,
provided they are not fighters. If
two cats in one household fight, they should be kept apart, given
behavioural therapy or one re-homed, regardless of their FIV status.
So, this is obviously a decision to be taken on a case by case basis,
depending on the natures of the
Cats are far more at risk of being bitten by an unknown feral or stray FIV-positive cat
than by a friendly, neutered, FIV-positive cat living as part of the family
Some rescues insist that FIV+ cats are homed as 'indoor cats' or go to homes with an enclosed garden to prevent contact with other cats. Certainly if the cat has aggressive tendencies it should not be allowed free access to the outside world, or to mix with non-infected cats. However, being indoor-only may be considered as reducing their quality of life, since most FIV positive cats have previously been used to going outdoors. In some cases being confined indoors can even cause stress, which may further lower their immune system. However, given the length of time some FIV+ cats remain in rescues before being adopted, an indoor home is far better than staying in rescue, and will also limit their exposure to outside infections. An enclosed garden can be a good compromise.
In cities and urban areas where there are a high numbers of stray and un-neutered male cats, there is little benefit in confining a neutered, cared-for, FIV positive cat indoors when a large percentage of cats outdoors will already carry the virus. However, in rural areas and where there are low rates of FIV infection, the decision on whether to allow an FIV+ cat access to the outdoors needs to be taken with a view to preventing the spread of FIV locally.
The decision then, should be taken both with regard to the individual cat's nature and needs, and also as to whether the virus is already present in the general cat population in the area.
Good care and lots of love can help your FIV+ cat to enjoy a long life.
Whilst healthy, their regular
annual vaccinations should be kept up to date,
your vet about vaccinating if the cat is suffering symptoms. A good
diet will help, including vitamin supplements such as buffered vitamin
C (sodium ascorbate) and vitamin E, which builds immune system strength.
At any sign of illness, take your cat to the vet, as early treatment
can prevent many problems. Antibiotics can control infections, and
FIV+ cats who reach a chronic stage may rely on antibiotics more
Love is a Powerful Immune System Enhancer - so Cherish your FIV+ cat!
Boarding catteries should have no problem accepting an FIV cat, since the virus
cannot be transmitted by feeding equipment etc. although you should make them
aware of the cat's condition. The cattery will need to know this, to ensure
that they are not allowed contact with other cats, and also so that they can
keep a close eye for any symptoms of illness, and act promptly.
FIV cats should always be neutered, however
if a female FIV positive cat is allowed to become
the kittens to become infected with the virus. FIV
differs from feline leukaemia in that respect, in that it
is not passed on from
the queen to kittens in
utero. However, kittens born to an infected mother will absorb antibodies
from her milk and will therefore give a positive response to the FIV
antibody test. In these kittens the test becomes negative after 12-16
weeks, as their maternal immunity wanes. It is therefore pointless
kittens under 16 weeks using an FIV antibody test.
Even though it is rare for kittens to be born FIV positive, if there
is a clinical need to find out their FIV status, the University of Bristol, Langford Veterinary Diagnostics can carry out an antigen test,
which detects the presence of the
DNA itself rather than just the antibody.
This is a relatively expensive test, but if needed, information can
be obtained from them by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on FIV check these out:
Catwork Sanctuary: www.v63.net/catsanctuary/fiv.html
Celia Hammond Animal Trust: www.celiahammond.org
Glasgow University: Veterinary Diagnostic Services - FIV
University of Glasgow, Veterinary Diagnostics Services: www.gla.ac.uk/schools/vet/cad/
University of Exeter, TDDS (Torrance Diamond Diagnostic Services), Exeter: www.tddslab.co.uk
University of Bristol, Langford Veterinary Services: www.langfordvets.co.uk/diagnostic-laboratories
Idexx Laboratories: www.idexx.co.uk/html/en_gb/smallanimal/in-house-diagnostics.html
FInd out more and chat to other FIV owners on the Cat Chat Forum >> Feline Forum: the 'FIV Owners Club'
Glasgow University - FIV Information for Owners >> What is Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)?
Catwork Sanctuary - Should FIVs be 'indoor-only'? »» www.v63.net/catsanctuary
'80 FIV Cats' - Catwork Sanctuary's booklet about FIV »» www.v63.net/catsanctuary/fivbook.html
shelters across the UK have FIV cats needing homes - find rescue centres near you »» UK Shelter listings