What You Should Know When Adopting an FIV Positive Cat
Are FIV cats unadoptable?
Historically, FIV- positive cats have often been considered un-adoptable, and are euthanized in many shelters. However, new research has shown that FIV-positive cats are in fact very adoptable, and can live the same lifespan as an FIV-negative cat. This research has also debunked the myth that FIV- positive cats cannot safely live with non- infected cats. That is why many veterinarians, including the feline medicine experts at the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), suggest shelters and owners never opt for euthanasia based on a positive test alone.
According to Dr. Julie K. Levy, founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, it is estimated that about 4% of all feral cats in the US are infected with FIV. The infection rate is even lower at 1.5% to 3% in healthy owned cats. She says, “Looking at all cats, feral and otherwise, who are diagnosed with FIV, we find that about 25% are female and about 75% are male. The vast majority of FIV infections occur among “outdoor, unneutered male cats that fight and bite.” Levy also pointed out that “the condition is rare among kittens, because they don’t start in with their high-risk behavior until they’re older. So, although older cats are more vulnerable, age in itself is not a determining factor. It’s a behavioral issue.”
Is your family at risk if you adopt an FIV-positive cat?
The answer is no. Just as HIV affects only people, FIV is contractible by cats alone. Being FIV-positive means that the cat has antibodies that have been exposed to the virus, although it can take years, if ever, before the cat develops any FIV infection and clinical signs referred to as Feline AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome of Cats). If a cat has FIV, it does not necessarily have Feline AIDS.
How is FIV transmitted?
One of the most damaging myths about FIV-positive cats is that saliva can transfer the virus and therefore sharing the same water bowls, food bowls, and licking each other can cause the virus to pass from cat to cat. However, the virus stays deep inside the cat’s mouth gums, so in fact, “FIV is mainly passed from cat to cat through deep bite wounds, the kind that usually occurs outdoors during aggressive fights and territorial disputes,” according to the ASPCA. The virus is very fragile, and does not live for long once outside the body. It is destroyed by drying, light, heat, and basic detergents.
Secondly, “the mucous membrane is a fairly effective barrier to the virus, so even if some virus does enter the cat’s mouth, it is very unlikely to cross the mucous membrane, so it will die inside the stomach. It has been suggested that, for the virus to actually infect a cat when taken in through the mouth, there would need to be ten thousand times as much virus present for it to achieve a cross infection”. Although sexual contact is a common mode of transmission in HIV, the same does not hold true for FIV, says Dr. Levy, despite the virus’s presence in feline semen and other genital secretions. “We don’t know why this is,” she says, “but it appears that a cat’s immune system is better able to ward off the virus when it is sexually transmitted than when it is transmitted by biting.”
Likewise, while it is known that HIV can be transmitted from an infected human mother to her offspring while nursing, this is uncommon in cats. A queen’s milk contains antibodies to FIV-protein substances that the body produces to weaken or destroy the virus. These antibodies are passed along to a kitten during its first nursing and as long as the kitten begins to nurse immediately following its birth, which most kittens do, then they are usually protected. (This is not the case in humans.) She does point out that unfortunately, “kittens can’t absorb the antibodies after the first day, so if they delay nursing for a day, they are likely to become infected.” Dr. Levy finds little evidence to support the notion that FIV can be transmitted by fleas and other such blood-sucking parasites.
How is FIV diagnosed?
FIV is diagnosed though a blood test that detects antibodies to the virus. The most common screen test is called the ELISA test (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay). Tests can result in a false negative or positive, which may occur for a variety of reasons. Due to the false results that occur it is important to re-test a kitten within six months after the first test, as it can take up to eight weeks or longer for a cat to develop FIV antibodies. A kitten that has contracted its mother’s antibodies when tested may receive a false positive, or a cat that has recently been infected may receive a false negative. The VBSPCA tests each of our cats when they arrive at the shelter to determine if they have been exposed to FIV.
What are some symptoms that can occur in a FIV-positive cat?
The virus reduces the immune system’s ability to respond to any infections due to the lower amount of white blood cells in the body. This means that many of the symptoms associated with FIV are due to other non-healing infections, which include gingivitis, stomatitis, poor appetite, weight loss, conjunctivitis, vomiting or diarrhea. Many bacterial infections will be treated with antibiotics or antivirals. The effect of the antibiotics is usually temporary. The best way to manage an FIV cat is to use preventative care so that the cat can be as strong as possible before any of these symptoms manifest, and if they do arise, symptomatic treatment is usually the course of action.
How else can I help protect an FIV-positive cat?
Nutrition is important for all cats, FIV positive or not, along with limiting as best as you can their exposure to potential pathogens. These measures are important and can extend an already long life. While the VBSPCA promotes indoor living for cats, it is especially necessary for FIV positive cats to be kept indoors, where their immune system will be less exposed. An examination at the vet twice a year is very important, and they will require blood and urine tests to monitor their immune system. Any infection should be treated immediately.
Take Home Message: FIV-positive cats can live long fulfilling lives. Casual, non-aggressive contact does not appear to be an efficient route of spreading the virus. As a result, cats in households with stable social structures where housemates do not fight are at little risk of acquiring FIV infections.
Written by VBSPCA Assistant Medical Director Dr. Tanya Patterson, DVM