Cats and FIV – Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

There are many vaccines that new cat owners are encouraged to have performed on their cat to protect against rabies, feline distemper (FPV), feline leukemia (FLV), among other cat illnesses. One vaccine is less common than the others, but protects against a disease that is just as serious, if not more. That disease is FIV, or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, also known as Feline AIDs. Cats and FIV has become a topic of increasing concern as more people come to realize that cats can get “AIDs” too.

What is FIV?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is the cat equivalent of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV in human beings. FIV is a disease-creating virus that attacks the immune system of cats. The virus causes a sharp decrease in white blood cell count. White blood cells are essential cells of the immune system that help protect against infection and disease. It is not a death sentence for cats—some cats can live for many years after being diagnosed, or without any symptoms in the first place.

FIV is in the same family as HIV, but has different attributes such as the way it is transmitted and the rate of its development into full blown AIDS. In fact, some cases of FIV never develop into AIDs. FIV occurs more frequently in older cats, usually those that are five years or older. FIV infection is usually not the reason that cats get sick—it is the secondary infections that develop, such as upper respiratory infections and bladder problems, that cause infected cats to become ill.

Some common symptoms of FIV are: chronic abcesses, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, enlarged lymph nodes, cataracts, facial twitching, and behaviorial changes. This list is not exhaustive, as there are numerous symptoms associated with FIV. Some cats don’t experience any symptoms for years.

How is FIV Transmitted?

FIV is transmitted from cat to cat by deep bite wounds. The virus is usually spread from saliva to blood stream. Aggressive male cats that roam outdoors are most likely to contract FIV because they get into physical fights with other cats over territory. Female cats and male cats that are passive are less likely to get into fights, thus less likely to contract the virus. FIV can also be transmitted to a cat by its mother during the gestation period, during birth, and during the period of time in which she gives milk to her young. The mother’s milk can contain the virus.

Humans cannot contract FIV in its full form, but it is possible for a human with a weak immune system to be affected by the bacteria that causes negative effects in cats with FIV, if the fluids of an infected cat somehow enter the blood stream of a human that is.

How Many Cats are Infected?

Recent statistics have shown that about 3% of cats in the United States are infected with FIV, and 5% of these same cats are usually also infected with feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Though the numbers of cats that are infected seems low, it is still a major concern in communities that have a lot of stray cats since the virus is spread from cat to cat. Also, since many cats live for years without having symptoms of FIV, it is possible that some cases of Cats and FIV go unreported. FIV is fatal and currently has no cure, same as in humans, so any percentage of occurrence of FIV in cats should be noted.

How is FIV Treated

FIV is incurable, but can be treated in a number of ways. Some cats take medication that increases the white blood count. Reverse inhibitors such as AZT, PMEA, or ddC are sometimes suggested by veterinarians to reverse the negative effects of the virus, but usually with cautions attached. Doctors also suggest a regimen of Omega fatty acids, antioxidants, and a strong healthy diet to build up the immune system.

Due to the fact that the FIV virus makes cats more vulnerable to secondary disease, every possible precaution should be taken to prevent foreign toxins, infections, and disease-creating bacteria from being introduced into the cat’s environment. It is best to keep the infected cat indoors.

Regular tests and visits to the vet can help a cat owner better manage the virus in their cat. The veterinarian can look at the results of tests and recommend specific actions that the owner can take to build up the cat’s immune system.

How Can I Protect My Cat from FIV

The only way to assure that your cat will not contract the virus is by keeping it indoors. Outside is where most diseases are transmitted to cats by other cats who have not been vaccinated or treated. Free-roaming cats are most likely to carry the virus, even if they do not have symptoms.

As mentioned earlier, FIV vaccinations are also available, but there is some controversy surrounding its use and effectiveness, especially since it is fairly new. Some say that the vaccine is dangerous because when cats who have taken the vaccine are tested for FIV, their results come up positive. If the cat who has been vaccinated is lost and found by another owner or rescue shelter it will test as positive for FIV and possibly be terminated. Other critics note that the current vaccine only protects against two strains of the virus, while there are five known strains of the virus currently present in cat populations.

Cases of Cats and FIV are infrequent but not unimportant. Any cat that has been exposed to the possible transmission of FIV should be tested, not only for the health of that cat, but also to protect other cats it may come into contact with in the future. People who have cats with this rare disease should not look at the diagnosis as the end of their cat. There have been several cases where cats have lived well beyond their life expectancy due to thoughful and thorough care from their owners.


Articles written by staff are typically freelancers, people knowledgeable in their fields.

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