More About FIV


Clinical Signs & Symptoms:  Cats infected with FIV may have a fever, enlarged lymph nodes, loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, ulcers in the mouth, skin disorders or conjunctivitis.  Some cats will show behavioral signs such as dementia, inappropriate elimination, hiding, and roaming.  Neurological signs can include seizures or problems maintaining balance.  Cats with FIV may also develop cancer.

Description:  Although it cannot be transmitted to humans, feline immunodeficiency virus often has been referred to as “feline AIDS” because of its similarity to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Both viruses impair the ability of the immune system to function normally, causing infections, cancer, and debilitation.  When a cat becomes infected with FIV, the virus begins to replicate in the immune cells of the body, causing fever and swollen lymph nodes. After this, FIV goes into a latent or dormant state for several years, during which time the cat does not show signs of the disease.  After two to ten years, the virus emerges from its dormant state and causes the clinical signs of terminal disease.

Diagnosis:  Following a thorough medical history and physical exam, an FIV test can be performed at most veterinary hospitals using a serology test called an ELISA assay.  Using a few drops of blood, this test detects the presence of antibodies to the virus.  A false positive is possible in kittens younger than 5 months, because FIV antibodies can be transmitted during nursing from an FIV positive mother and take time to leave the kitten’s system.  In addition, a vaccinated cat will also show a false positive on ELISA tests that are now available.
Cats that are sick or showing clinical signs of disease will need to have blood tests done to detect any abnormalities.  The virus can affect organs such as the kidneys and liver, as well as the bone marrow.  Involvement of the bone marrow can cause abnormal development of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Prognosis:  Once cats begin to show signs of serious disease due to repeated bacterial or viral infections, organ disease, or a failure to thrive, the life expectancy is one year or less.  However, it may take cats anywhere from two to 10 years before reaching this stage of the disease.  Each cat is different and one cannot predict how long a cat with FIV will live.

Transmission or Cause:  Feline immunodeficiency virus is transmitted through blood and saliva.  Most often, it is spread when an infected cat bites another cat. Unneutered, outdoor, male cats that roam and fight with other cats are at greatest risk for developing FIV because they are more likely to defend their territory by fighting.  Less common routes of infection include kittens nursing from an FIV positive mother or viral infection while in the uterus

Treatment:  At this time, there is no known treatment that will eliminate the virus or treat it specifically. Medications and nutritional supplements that stimulate the immune system have been used in cats, which may improve the quality and duration of the cat’s life. Because the virus can damage the immune system, treatment generally is directed at controlling any secondary bacterial infections through the use of antibiotics.

Prevention:  A vaccine has just been developed to aid in the prevention of FIV.  However, the best prevention is to eliminate contact with the virus.   General recommendations include keeping all cats indoors to deter them from fighting with potential carriers of FIV.  New cats should be tested for FIV before being housed with other cats that do not have the virus. Kittens that are born to FIV infected mothers should not be allowed to nurse because the virus can be passed through the milk.  FIV is not transmitted commonly by casual contact and is destroyed easily by disinfectants and routine cleaning.