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Feline Aids (FIV)

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a significant cause of disease in cats worldwide. It was first discovered during the investigation of a disease outbreak in a previously healthy colony of rescue cats in America that had been showing similar signs to people with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Although HIV and FIV are very similar, the viruses are species specific, which means that FIV only infects cats and HIV only infects humans. Thus there is no risk of infection for people in contact with FIV-positive cats.

What is FIV and how does it cause disease?

FIV affects the cells of the immune system (white blood cells) killing or damaging them. This causes a gradual decline in the cat’s immune function. Early stages of infection may not cause many symptoms to be visible. The immune system is very important in fighting infections and monitoring the body for cancerous cells and thus FIV–infected cats are at a far greater risk of disease and infection with other viruses, bacteria and other organisms.

Which cats are at risk?

The most common method of transmission of FIV is via biting during fighting. For this reason entire male cats carry a higher risk of infection and a free-living lifestyle, of feral or stray cats, increases the prevalence. Any cat can be infected at any age but there is often considerable delay between infection and development of clinical signs and thus the appearance of the disease is more common in middle-aged to elderly cats.

How is FIV spread?

Biting is considered to be the most common method of transmission of FIV. The saliva of an infected cat contains large amounts of virus and a single bite can result in transmission of infection. Infection can also occur by close social contact within a group of cats where there is no overt aggression via the sharing of food bowls and mutual grooming. A small number of kittens born to FIV-infected queens may also become infected in the womb or by drinking infected milk. This is difficult to confirm until several months after birth because of the presence of maternally derived antibodies.

What are the clinical signs of an FIV infection?

Unfortunately there are not many disease specific symptoms that are connected to FIV. During the primary phase of infection in the first 2-4 months, cats may show short-term signs of illness including discomfort, pyrexia (high temperature) and possibly lymph node enlargement. Most cats will recover from this early phase and enter a second phase when they appear to be healthy. Eventually in the third phase of infection, other secondary diseases can start to take affect due to the compromise on the animal’s immune system, one example would be infection of the gastrointestinal tract which may cause diarrhoea. Common signs include depression, weight loss, inappetence, pyrexia (high temperature due to infection), and gingivitis (inflamed gums).

How is FIV diagnosed?

FIV can be diagnosed by performing a simple blood test at your local vet clinic.

Treatment options

There is no treatment for FIV, therefore prevention is the only “cure” and vaccinating your cat with the FIV vaccination can eliminate the risks with contracting FIV.

Long-term management of the FIV-infected cat

Cats infected with FIV must be confined indoors to prevent spread of the virus to other cats in the neighbourhood. Good nutrition and husbandry are essential to maintain good health in infected cats. These cats should be fed a nutritionally balanced and complete feline diet.

Cats infected with FIV should receive wellness visits at least semi-annually to promptly detect changes in their health status. Your vet will perform a thorough examination of your cat and concentrate particularly on the mouth, skin, lymph nodes and eyes and record your cat’s weight. A blood sample should also be analysed yearly to check your cat’s blood count. If any illness is detected either by the owner or the veterinary surgeon then supportive therapy should begin.

Prognosis for infected cats

The prognosis for FIV-infected cats remains guarded. If the diagnosis of FIV infection is reached early in the course of the disease, your cat may live a long and happy life with this disease. Many cats with FIV can remain healthy for extended periods with the above management guidelines