Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is one of the most common and consequential infectious diseases of cats around the world. In infected cats, FIV attacks the immune system, leaving the cat vulnerable to many other infections. Although cats infected with FIV may appear normal for years, they eventually suffer from immune deficiency, which allows normally harmless bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi found in the everyday environment to potentially cause severe illnesses. Though there is no cure for FIV, recent studies suggest that cats with FIV commonly live average life spans, as long as they are not also infected with feline leukemia virus.

FIV positive cats may appear normal for years, but their compromised immune system makes them more vulnerable to other infections. Normally harmless organisms found in the everyday environment, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, can potentially cause severe illnesses. To obtain a diagnosis, testing is done using a small blood sample. A positive screening test is typically followed by a confirmatory test.

FIV is cat-specific and can be transmitted from cat to cat, typically through bite wounds. Casual contact between cats, like grooming, poses little risk of acquiring FIV infections; however, a certain degree of risk remains. Transmission of FIV from a mother cat to her kittens or the spread of the virus via sexual contact is uncommon.

Common Clinical Signs of FIV in Cats

If an FIV-infected cat develops functional immunodeficiency (many do not), it often occurs years after they are infected by another cat. Common symptoms may include:

•          Enlarged lymph nodes

•          Poor coat condition

•          Persistent fever

•          Loss of appetite

•          Inflammation of gums or mouth

•          Chronic or reoccurring infections of skin, eyes, bladder, and the upper respiratory tract

•          Persistent diarrhea

•          Eye conditions

•          Behavior changes

•          Slow but progressive weight loss

If your cat shows any of the symptoms above, it is essential to have them tested for FIV by their veterinarian.

What is their life expectancy?

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 positive cats can live normal lifespans. These days, it’s not unusual to find FIV positive cats reaching 15 years or more.

Treatment and Management

Unfortunately, there is currently no definitive cure for FIV. However, it is important to realize that while it is impossible to predict the survival of a given cat infected with FIV, cats infected with FIV can live very normal, healthy lives for many years if managed appropriately. Once an FIV infected cat has experienced one or more severe illnesses as a result of infection, however, or if persistent fever and weight loss are present, the prognosis is generally less favorable.

For a healthy cat diagnosed with FIV, the most important management goals are to reduce their risk of acquiring secondary infections and prevent the spread of FIV to other cats. Both of these goals are best met by keeping cats indoors and isolated from other cats. Spaying and neutering will eliminate the risk of spreading FIV to kittens or through mating and will reduce the tendency of cats to roam and fight if they do get outside. They should be fed nutritionally complete and balanced diets, and uncooked food, such as raw meat and eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products should be avoided to minimize the risk of food-borne bacterial and parasitic infections.

Wellness visits for FIV-infected cats should be scheduled at least every six months. The veterinarian will perform a detailed physical examination of all body systems with special attention to the health of the gums, eyes, skin, and lymph nodes. Weight will be measured accurately and recorded, because weight loss is often the first sign of deterioration. A complete blood count, serum biochemical analysis, and a urine analysis should be performed annually.

Vigilance and close monitoring of the health and behavior of FIV-infected cats is even more important than it is for uninfected cats.

Because most illness in FIV-infected cats is the result of secondary infections, it is very important that cats be promptly evaluated and treated when any signs of illness occur. These cats may require longer or more intense treatments and courses of antibiotics than cats without FIV. For routine procedures such as dental therapy or surgery, antibiotics may be recommended to help prevent secondary infections from taking hold.

Treatment for the virus itself is limited and mostly use drugs developed for treatment of Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Zidovudine (AZT) treatment can help cats with severe dental inflammation (stomatitis) or neurologic disease, but has not been shown to prolong survival in FIV-infected cats and can have serious side effects. There is significant ongoing research investigating different combination antiviral therapies to treat FIV.

Prevention

The only sure way to protect cats is to prevent their exposure to the virus. Cat bites are the major means by which infection is transmitted, so keeping cats indoors, away from potentially infected cats that might bite them, markedly reduces their likelihood of contracting FIV infection. To reduce the chance of indoor cats becoming infected, it is ideal to assure that only infection-free cats are brought into a household occupied by uninfected cats. In some cases, separation of infected from non-infected cats is possible in a household, and this is ideal if infected cats must be brought into occupied by non-infected cats.

FIV will not survive for more than a few hours in most environments. However, FIV-infected cats are frequently infected with other infectious agents that may pose some threat to a newcomer. For these reasons, to minimize transmission of FIV and other infectious diseases to a cat that is brought into an environment in which an FIV-positive cat has lived, prudence dictates a thorough cleaning and disinfection or replacement of food and water dishes, bedding, litter pans, and toys. A dilute solution of household bleach (four ounces of bleach in 1 gallon of water) makes an excellent disinfectant. Vacuuming carpets and mopping floors with an appropriate cleanser are also recommended. Any new cats or kittens should be properly vaccinated against other infectious agents before entering the household.

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