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Feline immunodeficiency virus . . . FIV!

While we spend lots of time looking for and researching "good news" stories about pets, sometimes one just jumps out at us via our viewers' email. This blog is a testament to that and we want to thank viewer Robert for his suggestion!

I grew up in the '70s and '80s, right at the height of the scare of human immunodeficiency virus and the disease known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). For a long while, there was a LOT of bad information shared about this virus and how it was transmitted. This led to a lot of prejudice against people with the virus and I am so thankful that we have moved to a better understanding.

In a similar fashion, we see some less than accurate information shared about the feline version of this virus, FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus). It's not uncommon to hear that cats with FIV don't live as long as other cats or that they can't be kept as part of a group of cats at home, but the truth of the matter is far different.

First . . . the facts!! FIV is a lentivirus, just like HIV is in people. This virus group is part of a larger family known as retroviruses. Lentiviruses can actually integrate copies of their genetic material into the host's chromosome. This means that (1) they have a great hiding place from the immune system and (2) the incubation period before causing disease can be very prolonged. FYI . . . humans can not get FIV and cats can't get HIV . . . just wanted to get that out there!!

Black and white cat looking at camera
Inquisitive kitty!

FIV is prevalent worldwide and infection rates here in the United States run at about 2.5%. A study done in 2004 with more than 18,000 cats from various places around the country showed that adult, free-roaming male cats were more likely to be infected due to their prevalence for fighting. The FIV virus can be spread through sexual contact or from mom to her kittens, but, by far, the primary way this virus spreads is through bite wounds. The American Association of Feline Practitioners has this great informative brochure that details much that we know about FIV and Feline Leukemia. Likewise, this page from Cornell's Feline Health Center is very helpful!

While it is possible for FIV positive cats to develop their "Feline AIDS" quickly, only a small percentage do so. According to Veterinary Partner, about 18% of cats with FIV will die within 5 years and another 18% are alive, but experiencing illness. That still leaves more than 6 out of every 10 cats with FIV who are just living fairly normal lives!

FIV positive cats can live in a household with other cats, but only if the environment is stable and there are no fights happening. As mentioned above, bite wounds are the primary means of transmission and if your felines are getting along, that's great! You should, however, pay very close attention to all members of your kitty household. Cats without the virus should be tested annually or whenever they show up sick. Take your FIV positive to the veterinarian at least twice a year for exams. Since FIV works to attack the immune system, your cat will be more likely to acquire infections FIV negative cats can fight off. These exams help give your kitty's doctor a heads up on her overall health.

Cat scratching at herself
Outdoor cat

Keep that cat indoors!! Not only are you helping to keep the cat healthier, you are helping to limit the spread of the virus! Don't forget the parasite prevention . . . FIV positive cats are more susceptible to both internal and external parasites and they all seem to find ways into your home!

Discuss vaccination (for rabies and other feline diseases) with your veterinarian. There is some evidence that vaccination might encourage FIV to replicate, but there are also local rabies laws to consider. Providing that kind of advice is beyond the scope of this blog, so definitely have a chat with your veterinarian.

Bottom line: FIV positive cats can be part of your family for a long time, but you need to watch out for their health. Don't skimp on the routine examinations and make sure you let your veterinarian know about any changes you see in your pet.


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