Cat owners often confuse feline leukemia with feline immunodeficiency virus (or FIV, also known as feline AIDS). Like feline leukemia, FIV is caused by a virus. However, the similarities end there. The diseases differ in many ways including risk, transmission, and prognosis.
What Is FIV?
Much like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), FIV attacks a cat’s immune system, reducing their ability to fight off other infections. An infected cat may be at greater risk of developing other infections because their immune system isn’t as strong as that of a healthy cat. Thus, they are at greater risk of catching what are called “opportunistic” infections—those resulting from their depleted immune system being unable to fight infections that a healthy cat may be able to fight off.
A cat’s risk of catching FIV is much lower than that of catching feline leukemia because experts do not believe that FIV is spread through routine contact with infected cats but instead through deep bite wounds such as might occur during intense territory battles among male cats. Mother cats can transmit the disease to their kittens, but in some instances the kittens are not infected by the virus.
Signs of FIV
Many of the signs of FIV look like those for feline leukemia including fever, lethargy, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, and skin and respiratory infections. Other problems include dental or oral infections, diarrhea, eye diseases such as cloudiness in the cornea, vomiting, abscesses, poor coat or hair loss, ear mites, and ringworm, among others. Some cats show neurological problems or anemia. Viewed individually, some of these infections (like ear mites or ringworm) are normal problems affecting even healthy cats. However, a vigilant cat owner should take note when infections occur at greater frequency, duration, or in concert with other infections.
What if My Cat Has FIV?
FIV is not necessarily a death sentence. Unlike feline leukemia, many cats infected with FIV can live healthily for many years, even to a normal life span. If the cat does succumb to the disease, their death is caused by opportunistic infections or diseases rather than the virus itself.
Additionally, if you have multiple cats, the risk of transmission of FIV to other uninfected cats is low as long as they don’t fight and bite. If they do, you may wish to keep them separate. Though the risk of transmission is low, the only way to truly put a risk of transmission at zero is to keep your healthy cat from contact with infected cats.
It's also recommended to keep cats with FIV inside, so they can't spread the virus to other cats in the neighborhood.
If your cat has FIV, you do need to take steps to help them live a long, comfortable life. Because the virus reduces a cat’s ability to fight other opportunistic infections, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the state of your cat’s health and effectively treat opportunistic infections as they arise. That means taking them routinely for wellness visits to the veterinarian every six months. You may also speak to your veterinarian about the type of diet and supplements that may help boost your cat's immune system.
Protecting My Cat from FIV
The best way to protect your cat from catching FIV is by keeping them away from potentially infected cats. That may mean keeping your cat indoors or allowing them only supervised outdoor access. Neutering and spaying cats can often help reduce the territorial battle instincts while keeping such cats from wandering excessively (and reproducing uncontrollably).
Because of the general low risk of transmission, following these precautions can be enough to keep your cat FIV-free; however, you may also wish to consider the FIV vaccine. Talk to your veterinarian about the pros and cons of the vaccine and whether it would be a benefit to your cat.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.