What Is FIV in Cats, and How Contagious Is It?
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Much like humans, certain cats are at a risk for contracting an immunodeficiency virus. "Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a retrovirus specific to cats that weakens their immune system over time, making it challenging to fight off common infections," explains Dr. Chad Dodd, veterinarian and the founder of Animatas Consulting. "FIV is a slow-acting virus, which means cats generally do not show any symptoms until months or years after being infected."
According to research from Banfield Pet Hospital's 2014 State of Pet Health Report, approximately one in every 300 cats seen at the hospital in 2013 were infected with FIV, with male cats three times more likely to be infected with FIV than female cats. "FIV spreads to other cats via direct contact with an infected cat," explains JoAnn Morrison, DVM at Banfield Pet Hospital. "The virus is most commonly transmitted through bite wounds associated with cat fights (which may help explain the higher rates seen in male cats, especially those cats that are free-roaming and not neutered) or from an infected mother to her kittens."
According to Morrison, cats may be infected with FIV for some time without showing signs of illness. "When health problems begin to appear, they may take the form of persistent illness or intermittent health problems," she says. "Symptoms of FIV infection are often nonspecific and may include fever, decreases in activity level and appetite, gum disease (appearing as mouth sores, tooth loss, reluctance to eat, or bad breath), weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes."
Since FIV is most commonly spread through bite wounds, Dodd says the only thing an owner can do to protect their cat from the virus is to limit their contact with other felines. "The only sure way to protect cats is to prevent exposure to the virus," he says. "Keeping cats indoors, away from potentially infected cats that might bite them, markedly reduces their chances of getting infected. If you choose to let your cat outdoors, keep them in an outdoor enclosure."
How to Treat FIV
While there is no cure for FIV, Dodd says you can work with your veterinarian to address certain symptoms and health issues that surface as a result of your cat's compromised immune system. "When the disease advances, symptoms can vary in severity and are often managed with symptomatic care," he says. Per the ASPCA, easing the secondary effects of the virus can include fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy, as well as anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing drugs.
How to Care for a Cat with FIV
Along with regular visits to the vet, Morrison says there are measures you can take at home to care for a cat with FIV, too. "Once an infected cat becomes sick, pet owners should pay close attention to even subtle changes in the pet's health and behavior and seek immediate veterinary care if and when problems arise," she says. For in-home care, she recommends minimizing any stress in your cat's environment, providing them with excellent nutrition, and keeping a stable cat population inside your house (to prevent contact with other infected felines).
There is good news, though: With the right veterinary care and treatment plan, Dodd says many FIV-positive cats can live well into their senior years without showing any signs of compromised health. "While it is impossible to predict the survival of a given cat infected with FIV, cats infected with FIV can live reasonably normal lives for many years if managed appropriately," he explains.