Loving and living with a cat with FIV

January 5, 2017

Your patients with this feline immunodeficiency virus can live full and healthy lives, with a couple of cat-veats.

Chloe catches some moments in the sun. Read her story in the sidebar. (Photos by Mindy Valcarcel)Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) can be a scary diagnosis for cat owners, especially if they associate it with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS. So what you do you do if a cat becomes infected or the owners want to adopt a cat that is already infected? We asked feline practitioner Kelly St. Denis, MS, DVM, DABVP (feline), owner of Charing Cross Cat Clinic in Brantford, Ontario.

Chloe doesn't let her deadly disease keep her in the shadows.

The case of Chloe, the immunocompromised kitty

Chloe was adopted by her owners at about 6 months of age after she had started hanging around their house. She joined another cat and a dog in the household was allowed to be an indoor-outdoor cat.

About six months later, she came home with a large cat bite wound and was found to have become infected with FIV. The veterinarian warned Chloe's owners that she could pass the infection on to the other cat in the household. In addition, he warned that she would always be at risk for serious disease because of her immunocompromised state and that she could never be an outside cat again because of the risk of her passing on the infection to other cats. Chloe's owners agreed to her new indoor-only status and took the chance of their other cat becoming infected. The veterinarian also started Chloe on interferon.

Fast forward 11 years, and Chloe is doing well. Her owners have continued the interferon treatment, and Chloe has not suffered any serious disease. Other cats in the household have remained unaffected. Her owners cherish her every day, and she's proof positive that an FIV-positive cat can live a full, healthy life.

Q. Is it advisable to adopt a cat with FIV?

A. Cats with FIV can live long and healthy lives. In fact, studies over the last 10 years or so have shown that cats with FIV often live as long as otherwise healthy cats that do not have this virus. Many of these cats age normally and never show signs of FIV-related illness.

Q. What precautions would the owners have to take?

A. FIV is a cat-specific virus-it can only be transferred between cats, and no other species can be infected. Since FIV can cause immunosuppression and, in theory, can increase the risk of a cat succumbing to certain infectious diseases, it is important to have the cat receive twice yearly veterinary care. Some infectious diseases that an FIV-infected cat might develop or carry could be transmitted to humans. For example, cat scratch fever is caused by a bacteria carried by fleas. All cats, including FIV-infected cats, should receive regular flea prevention consistent with the risks in the area they live. This will prevent the presence and transmission of the bacteria known to cause cat scratch fever in humans.

Q. Would there be a risk in other pets in the household?

A. FIV is transmitted primarily through bite wounds between cats. Other pets such as dogs would not be at risk of infection. If a client has more than one cat in the household and they do not get along, there is an increased risk that the virus can be transmitted between cats during fighting and biting. Thus, cats that do not get along should not be allowed to interact. A behavioral consultation should be scheduled with the veterinarian in an effort to identify causes of intercat aggression and possibly find a way for the cats to get along. If cats simply will not get along, then they will need to be housed separately, or one of the cats will need to be rehomed. The ability to transmit the virus by bite wound is also the reason that it is important to keep FIV-infected cats indoors. They can have access to an outdoor enclosure, but when they are allowed to roam free outside, they may spread this virus to other cats in the neighborhood.

Q. What's the best way to explain the disease and the risks to clients?

A. FIV is an immune deficiency virus belonging to the same family of viruses that include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causing human AIDS. This is not to say that the viruses can cross from cat to human or human to cat, but merely explains why the medical consequences of FIV in cats can be very similar to those experienced by people with HIV. As with people living with HIV, cats infected with FIV require extra medical care and extra attention to their diet and health. And as with people living with HIV, cats infected with FIV can live long, healthy lives. FIV is not easily transmitted between cats. Therefore, other than ensuring that there is no fighting and biting, most cats with FIV can live happily with one or two other cats and never spread their virus.

Q. What does lifelong care look like for a cat with FIV?

A. Cats with FIV will need to live in an environment that is relatively stress-free. A stress-free environment for a cat includes minimal extra pets in the household. A home with only one cat and no other pets is best, but if there are other cats or dogs, it is best to restrict the numbers and avoid taking in new pets. Resources such as food, water, litter boxes, bedding, scratch posts, safe places to hide and toys should be amply supplied so that the cat never stresses about what is available for use. They should be fed a high-quality, commercially prepared diet. Raw food diets can be especially dangerous to FIV-infected cats as they may have suppressed immune systems, making them more likely to get sick from the bacteria in raw food diets.

Cats infected with FIV should receive monthly parasite control, regardless of their status as indoor cats. This includes parasite control for intestinal worms and external parasites such as fleas, mites and ticks. These cats require routine, but more frequent medical care than uninfected cats, and should see their veterinarian every six months. At each veterinary visit, blood should be drawn for clinical chemistry and complete blood count testing.

Cats infected with FIV still need to be vaccinated. Veterinarians should address the vaccination needs based on lifestyle as outlined in the American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccination Guidelines (2013) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners Retroviral Management Guidelines (2008). If clients notice that an FIV-infected cat is not feeling well, they should not wait to “see what happens,” but schedule an appointment with the cat's veterinarian right away.

Q. What else should owners know?

A. All cats have unique, wonderful personalities. Cats with FIV are no exception. Since these cats are able to live long, healthy lives, there is no reason that they cannot be a part of someone's family. There are some who consider that FIV cats may pose too much of a risk to other cats or that the FIV-positive cat is destined to become ill from the virus. These individuals may suggest euthanasia of a cat that tests positive for FIV. This is an absolutely unnecessary measure. Cats infected with FIV should never be euthanized, unless they are actually experiencing a severe, debilitating illness that cannot be treated (as we would with any other cat).