Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or "Feline Aids"


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Feline Aids



Feline Aids, or FIV, is sadly a fatal, incurable disease of cats. It is a relatively new disease having only been discovered in 1986 in a colony of cats in California, and is found worldwide. It is caused by infection with the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) which is closely related to human HIV, although it is important to realise that FIV cannot be transmitted to humans. Like HIV, FIV interferes with the immune system of cats, ultimately causing a failure of the immune system which allows other secondary infections or diseases to infect the cat.
What Symptoms Does FIV Cause?
The FIV virus lives in a cat's blood stream and can be carried for up to 10 years before causing any symptoms. The symptoms of FIV are rather vague and certainly not specific to FIV. Whilst there is no one classical symptom, cats with Feline Aids usually have one or all of the following symptoms :-
- Fever
- Lethargy
- Loss of Appetite
- Diarrhoea
- Weight Loss
- Gingivitis and Stomatitis (Gum Disease and Oral Infections)
- Swollen Lymph Nodes
- Eye Lesions
- Poor Coat
- Anaemia (low red blood cell count)
- Chronic (or Recurrent) Infections
- Seizures, Behavior Changes, and other Neurological Disorders.
- Cancer
How is FIV Spread?
FIV is spread from cat to cat via direct contact, most commonly through bite wounds. The virus is shed in high levels in the saliva. Outdoor cats are therefore at a greater risk for contracting FIV since they are more likely to involved in cat fights etc. It is very unlikely to pass on FIV through casual contact such as sharing food and water bowls. Sexual contact is not a major means of spreading FIV. FIV can also be transmitted from an infected mother cat to her kittens, either during the birth process or when the newborn kittens suckle from their mother.
Many cats that test positive to FIV sadly also test positive for Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV) since both diseases are spread in a similar way.
How Common is FIV?
Research studies have found that between 14% and 29% of all cats in Australia and New Zealand are positive for FIV. In a recent survey Queensland was found to have an incidence of 28% …… that means that nearly one in three "apparently healthy" cats, actually already have the virus. Given the high density of housing in most Gold Coast suburbs, frequently several cat's territories overlap in a neighborhood and it is inevitable that virtually all cats with outdoor access will be involved in a fight, or attacked by another cat, a few times a year and are therefore at risk of contracting FIV. We are, however, very fortunate that there is a safe and effective FIV vaccine available since vaccination is really the only practical means of protecting your cat, and a blood test, prior to vaccination, is the only way to know if they are already infected.
How is FIV Infection Diagnosed ?
There are many different tests available for FIV but the most common is a blood test that we are able to run here in the laboratory at Gold Coast Vet Surgery and have the results available within 10 minutes. Should there be any problems with the test, or further confirmation required, then a blood sample can be sent to a specialist veterinary laboratory for more advanced tests such as PCR or virus isolation. If a cat tests positive for FIV then we may recommend additional blood tests to further check their overall health.
Is There Any Treatment?
Unfortunately no, there is no specific treatment nor cure for FIV. Some human retroviral drugs such as AZT are sometimes used with varied responses. Very importantly, secondary infections need to be effectively and aggressively treated with antibiotics.  Cats with FIV should be kept on a premium quality diet to maintain their immune system in as healthy a condition as possible.
It is also important to keep up with your regular preventative health measures such as regular worming, flea control and yearly booster vaccinations. Any possible infections should be checked and treated promptly. It is also recommended to keep an FIV infected cat indoors since it reduces the likelihood of picking up infections from other cats, as well as reducing the spreading of the virus to other cats.
Are Family Members at Risk ?
No, although HIV in people is related to FIV there is no risk of cross infection of FIV to humans. People can also not pass HIV to cats.
Are Other Cats in the Household Likely to be Infected?
Unfortunately if you have a cat with Feline Aids then other cats in your household may already be infected. Generally, however, spread between cats through social contact is very poor so the majority of your cats may well be FIV negative. But if you have a cat infected with FIV it is strongly recommended to get other cats in the household tested, and if negative, it is very wise to have them vaccinated against FIV.
Reclining Cat
How Can FIV be Prevented?
Fortunately there is a very safe and effective vaccine available against FIV. It is a simple subcutaneous injection and seldom has any side effects. When starting FIV vaccination cats need a course of three injections two weeks apart, but after that only a single booster vaccination is required each year to maintain the protection. Before starting FIV vaccination cats should have a blood test to ensure that they aren't already carrying the disease. It is also recommended that all vaccinated cats are microchipped. Apart from being a sensible thing to help find them should they get lost, microchipping is important because it enables vaccinated cat's to be identified since once vaccinated they have a positive reaction on FIV blood tests and could be incorrectly thought to be infected. A more advanced PCR test can determine between false positive, vaccinated cats and truly infected cats.
What Else Can Reduce The Risk of Infection?
Reduce the risk of your cat getting into fights by keeping them 100% indoors is the best, but if that is not practical, at least keep them in after dark since most cat fights happen at night. Desexing both males and females is highly recommended since it significantly reduces the incidence of fighting. Always be careful when introducing a new cat to your household, and unless it is a young kitten under 6 months of age, it would be sensible to have a simple blood test to check for FIV before introducing it to your home. Even if your cat is a completely indoor cat you should still consider FIV vaccination. After all, if they do accidentally get out (or another cat gets in) it only takes ONE bite or scratch to transmit FIV, a disease that cannot be cured.
Under What Circumstances Should FIV Testing Be Performed?
Since a cat can carry FIV and not be unwell, there is no way of knowing if a cat is infected with FIV or not unless a blood test is done. Early detection will help you maintain the health of your own cat and also allow you to prevent spreading infection to other cats. You should consider having your cat tested for FIV in the following circumstances:-
- If your cat has never been tested.
- If your cat is sick, even if it tested free of infection in the past.
- When a new cat is adopted.
- If your cat has recently been exposed to an infected cat.
- If your cat goes outdoors unsupervised, especially if known to be a "fighter"!
- If you're considering vaccinating with the FIV vaccine.
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