What Is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) in Cats?

Outdoor cat, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)

Reviewed by Dr. Cynthia Sweet of Badger Veterinary Hospital-Beloit

Approximately 1.5 to 3 percent of healthy cats in the U.S. are infected with FIV, or feline immunodeficiency virus. What is this virus and how does it impact a cat’s health? We answer some frequently asked questions about this feline concern.

What is feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)?

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) attacks the immune system in infected cats. Due to a weakened immune system, cats with FIV are prone to developing other infections and severe illnesses.

FIV is the same class of virus as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and causes a disease in cats that is similar to AIDS in humans. However, only cats can get FIV; people and dogs cannot.

How do cats get FIV?

The virus is usually spread from cat to cat through bite wounds. Therefore, free-roaming, aggressive male cats are the most frequently infected. On rare occasions, an infected mother cat can pass the virus to her kittens (in utero or via milk). Sexual transmission is uncommon in cats.

What are the signs of FIV infection?

Cats infected with FIV can appear normal for years. It’s a slow-moving virus. Symptoms are diverse and are difficult to distinguish from those associated with feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Once symptoms do appear, they can include:

  • Recurrent minor illnesses
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Inflammation of the gums and mouth
  • Chronic or recurrent skin, eye, bladder, and upper respiratory infections
  • Glaucoma
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Persistent fever with a loss of appetite
  • Cancer and blood diseases
  • Seizures, behavior changes, and other neurological disorders

How is FIV diagnosed?

To diagnose FIV in your cat, your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam, run a blood test that looks for the presence of FIV antibodies, and run a complete health panel, including a complete blood count, chemistry panel, and urinalysis. Your doctor will also rule out other bacterial, viral, or fungal infections as well as parasites and tumors before a final diagnosis.

Can FIV be treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for feline immunodeficiency virus. Treating and managing secondary infections in cats with FIV is critical. Wellness visits are recommended every six months.

FIV-infected cats should be spayed/neutered. These cats should be kept indoors to prevent fights with other cats which could spread the virus. Keeping cats with FIV indoors will also reduce their exposure to infections carried by other animals that may make them sick.

Discuss a dietary plan with your veterinarian. Cats with FIV should be fed nutritionally complete and balanced diets. Uncooked food (raw meat and eggs) and unpasteurized dairy products should be avoided to minimize the risk of food-borne infections.

Many FIV-positive cats can live seemingly normal lives for years. And in general, the earlier FIV is diagnosed, the better your cat’s chances of living a long and relatively healthy life.

What’s the best way to prevent a cat from getting FIV?

The only sure way to prevent your cat from getting FIV is to prevent exposure to the virus. Again, keeping cats indoors prevents the fighting and biting that may result in infection.

There is a vaccine for FIV, but it is considered a non-core vaccine for cats. Vaccination may or may not provide protection. Plus, a vaccinated cat will test positive for FIV in a way that can’t be distinguished from an actual infection. It’s important to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination with your veterinarian.

Do you have more questions about feline immunodeficiency virus? Call us today to schedule an appointment for your cat with a Badger Veterinary Hospital veterinarian!