People Think These Pets Are Inherently Unhealthy, but That Is a Myth

cat fiv

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cats infected with the feline immunodeficiency virus are among the hardest shelter pets to place
  • Shelter professionals are working to dispel the myths surrounding FIV-positive kitties so that prospective pet parents understand these cats can live normal, healthy lifespans in a stable environment — including among other pets
  • It’s also important to get the word out that the primary means of FIV transmission is through the bite of an infected cat to another cat; the virus cannot be spread to people or non-feline animals, nor can it be transmitted by casual contact between cats
  • Secondary infections are responsible for many of the diseases linked to FIV, so it’s important to monitor an FIV-positive kitty’s health through regular veterinary visits
  • FIV-positive cats can remain very healthy when provided with appropriate natural supplements to support the immune system

By Dr. Becker

Sadly, some of the pets least likely to be adopted at animal shelters across the U.S. are kitties with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Shelter experts realize that prospective pet owners are hesitant to adopt an FIV-positive cat, and they're hoping to change attitudes through increased awareness.

"Due to the fact people just don't understand it, they're apprehensive," says Kathleen Hacker of Shelter Angels Inc. in Bay County, Michigan. "Two years ago with this diagnosis, people would automatically put the cats down. More and more we're hearing people saying, 'Oh, I have an FIV cat'."1

The shelter community wants pet parents to know that while adopted stray cats may carry the virus, it's not something to be overly concerned about. "Most cats that are infected with FIV, you would never know," says Dr. Cheralyn Asa, a veterinarian in Bangor Township.

Risk of Cat-to-Cat Transmission Is Very Low

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's Feline Health Center, in the U.S., approximately 1.5 to 3 percent of otherwise healthy cats are infected with FIV. In sick kitties or those at high risk of infection, the rate is significantly higher at 15 percent or more.2

The disease is most often seen in free-roaming, aggressive male cats. This is because the virus, which is present in saliva and blood, is transmitted primarily through bites. It can't be spread to people, dogs, or other non-feline pets.

An infected cat can transmit the virus to another kitty, but contrary to what many people believe, it's a rare occurrence. Transmission requires a deep bite by an infected cat to an uninfected cat.

According to Hacker, "If you have pets who get along, there's hardly any chance of spreading it amongst a stable group. A small bite or a scratch isn't going to do it."

The virus survives for only a brief period of time outside a cat's body, and it cannot be transmitted indirectly on food, food bowls, toys, bedding, or human clothes, shoes, or hands (this is not the case with feline leukemia, however).

FIV does not appear to be transmitted through sexual contact between cats. However, during mating, male cats often grip the scruff of the female's neck with their teeth, which could result in a skin puncture that allows transmission.

Myths About FIV

Myth: Cats with FIV should be euthanized because they're unadoptable or too risky to place.

Fact: FIV positive kitties are no less adoptable than uninfected cats, live long healthy lives in stable environments, and without infecting other family pets.

Myth: Infected cats can spread FIV by casual contact with other cats, including mutual grooming.

Fact: FIV is only transmitted through deep bite wounds that draw blood.

Myth: FIV positive kitties become ill and die at an early age.

Fact: FIV cats don't have a higher incidence of disease than uninfected kitties, and don't die sooner.

By now you may be wondering why there are so many unfounded fears about FIV. CatChat.org, a cat rescue resource, explains it this way:

"FIV in the stray cat population has certainly fuelled much of the unfounded fear surrounding the virus. It is mainly un-neutered toms, fighting over food, females or territory, who pick up and spread the virus.

The stray cat has no-one to look after them, and their lifestyle means they are more likely to pick up other infections, which without treatment can escalate. When one of these gets captured and taken to a vet, suffering from any number of secondary infections, it is often too late.

It is the nature of a vet's work, that they will see many more ill cats than healthy ones, when in fact, there are very many more healthy FIV cats than ill ones — they just don't need to see the vet.

Indeed, many pet cats will already be FIV positive, but their owners are unaware of it due to the cat being perfectly healthy!"3

Does My Cat Have FIV?

An antibody test is used to check for the presence of FIV antibodies in the blood of infected kitties. However, false-positive results do occur, so it's recommended that a positive antibody test result be confirmed using a different type of test, typically a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

Infected pregnant cats will transfer FIV antibodies to nursing kittens, who may test positive for several months after birth. Fortunately, most of them aren't and won't become infected. Kittens under 6 months that test positive should be retested every 60 days until they are at least 6 months old.

Cats who test negative for FIV, but have had known or unknown exposure through a bite from another cat should be retested a minimum of 60 days after their most recent exposure. This is because it takes eight to 12 weeks — and sometimes even longer — before detectable levels of antibody appear.

Once in a great while, a kitty with advanced FIV tests negative because her immune system is so compromised that it can no longer produce detectable levels of antibody.

A cat with an FIV infection can be healthy for years. But eventually, in some cats the disease creates a state of immune deficiency that leaves the kitty susceptible to other infections.

This means everyday bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause no problems for healthy animals, can cause serious illness in kitties with compromised immune systems. Secondary infections are responsible for many of the diseases linked to FIV.

The course of the disease is somewhat unpredictable in that it can be uneventful throughout the cat's life, can cause recurrent bouts of illness interspersed with periods of relatively normal health, or can cause a progressive deterioration of health. Symptoms of immunodeficiency can occur anywhere in a cat's body and include:

Recurrent minor illnesses, often involving the upper respiratory tract and gastrointestinal tract

Persistent bacterial or fungal infections of the ears and skin

Inflammation of the gums is seen in 25 to 50 percent of cases

Fever and wasting, especially in the later stages

Upper respiratory tract disease is seen in 30 percent of cases

Cancer, especially lymphoma

Chronic eye problems, glaucoma

Nervous system abnormalities, including disruption of normal sleep patterns, behavioral changes such as pacing and aggression, changes in vision and hearing, and disorders affecting the nerves in the legs and paws

Chronic kidney insufficiency

Poor coat condition

Persistent diarrhea is seen in 10 to 20 percent of cases


Treatment Options for FIV-Positive Kitties

There is no specific treatment for the virus itself, however, any existing secondary infections will need to be treated. FIV-positive cats should be kept indoors, which will prevent the spread of the virus to other cats, while also reducing the risk that your kitty will be exposed to pathogens her immune system may not be able to handle. FIV-positive cats should not breed.

Cats with the virus should be fed a balanced, nutritionally complete species-appropriate diet. Unless your kitty has a low white blood cell count — in which case I recommend cooked fresh food — a raw diet is fine. You can also feed commercially available sterile raw food that has been high-pressure pasteurized.

Cats with FIV should see the veterinarian at least twice yearly to review the health of their eyes, gums, skin and lymph nodes, and to check their weight. At one of these visits each year, bloodwork and a urinalysis should be performed. Careful, consistent monitoring of your FIV-positive kitty's health and behavior is extremely important so that you can notify your vet right away of any changes.

I've had success keeping my FIV-positive patients very healthy using a variety of natural supplements to support the immune system, including medicinal mushrooms, Standard Process Feline Immune System Support and Whole Body Support, turmeric, Kyosenex Prime, Chinese herbs, and FIV homeopathic nosodes.

Ozone therapy can also be very beneficial for FIV cats who become symptomatic.

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