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Feline immunodeficiency virus

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Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a retrovirus, which is the same type of virus as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).  There are three phases of FIV infection: acute, sub-clinical, and terminal.  The acute phase is marked by illness that resolves on its own.  In the sub-clinical phase, an infected cat does not have any signs, and it may be healthy for years.  The terminal phase is marked by feline acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or feline AIDS.  There is no risk of FIV transmission to people.

FIV is transmitted directly from cat to cat in saliva through biting behaviors.  It is not surprising that many cats that test positive for FIV are known fighters.  Any cat with a bite wound of unknown origin should be tested for FIV several months in the future.  The FIV virus is not hardy outside the body, and therefore infection by casual contact is uncommon.  However, an infected mother can transmit FIV to her kittens during pregnancy, birth, or lactation.

FIV suppresses the cat's immune system.  Infections that are easily cleared up in a cat with a normal immune system are difficult to clear up in a cat with feline AIDS.  Many signs of feline AIDS are related to non-healing or chronic infections or wounds.  Common signs include weight loss, lack of appetite, fever, swollen lymph nodes, gingivitis, stomatitis, conjunctivitis, vomiting, diarrhea, and other nonspecific conditions.

FIV infection is diagnosed by specific blood tests.  Ideally, testing should be performed about 6 months after exposure.  Once a cat is infected with FIV, it will remain infected for life.

Cats that are infected with FIV should be evaluated every 6 months, including a physical examination and blood and urine tests to monitor immune status.  Any infections should be treated promptly.  These cats should live indoors to prevent spreading the infection to other cats.  A vaccine for FIV is available, but its use is controversial.

Q&A

What is FIV?

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a retrovirus, which is the same type of virus as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). 

How do cats become infected?

FIV is usually transmitted directly from cat to cat in saliva through biting, and many infected cats are known fighters.  Kittens of infected mothers may be born with FIV. 

Do infected cats get sick right away?

Initial infection is marked by mild generalized illness that clears on its own, but recovered cats can develop serious immune problems months to years later. 

How is FIV diagnosed?

FIV infection is diagnosed by specific blood tests, preferably about 6 months after exposure. 

How can I protect my cat from FIV?

There is no cure for FIV, but the disease can be prevented by keeping cats indoors and by testing any cats before they are brought into the household.  A vaccine for FIV is available, but its use is controversial.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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