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FIV: Yes, Cats Do Get AIDS!

Whenever I discuss FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) with cat owners, they all express surprise (you mean my cat can get AIDS!?) Yes, cats do get "AIDS" but it is their own type of AIDS. This article will present the latest information on this deadly viral infection in cats.

Like HIV, FIV is classified as a lentivirus. It stays in the cat’s body for many years before clinical disease occurs. This means that like the condition in people, cats can harbor the virus (be FIV positive) but not necessarily have AIDS (the actual disease causing illness) for many years. While FIV is similar to leukemia infection (FeLV) in cats, FeLV usually causes death in most cats due to overwhelming disease within 3 years of diagnosis.

FIV–infected cats are found around the world; in the US., approximately 1.5 to 3% of healthy, normal cats are infected with FIV (in sick cats, approximately 10-15% of tested cats are FIV positive.) Most commonly FIV affects free–roaming male cats, as the virus is transmitted primarily through bite wounds. Rarely, FIV is transmitted from an infected mother cat to her kittens during pregnancy or nursing. Unlike in people, sexual contact does not seem to be a primary means of spreading FIV.

Following initial infection, the virus goes to regional lymph nodes. It may cause mild illness (fever, lymph node enlargement, etc.) at this time. After initial reproduction, the virus stays quiet in the body for many years, until it flares up and causes clinical signs and disease. Eventually, signs of a suppressed immune system develop, and infections with bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi can cause severe illness. Clinical signs and even death arise as a result of these secondary infections.


Clinical Signs
Clinical signs of FIV in cats is varied and can include: poor coat, persistent fever, weight loss, diarrhea, loss of appetite, seizures, gingivitis/stomatitis (inflammation of the teeth and gums,) and chronic infections of the skin, urinary bladder, and respiratory system. Severe wasting of the body can occur late in the disease process. FIV–infected cats have an increased risk of developing cancer.


Diagnosis of FIV is based on the history, clinical signs, and results of an FIV antibody blood test. A positive test results indicates that a cat is infected with FIV (usually for life) and can transmit the virus to other cats. False–positive test results can occur; the test should be repeated in 8 to 12 weeks, especially if the test was done on a normal cat or kitten as part of a general health screening. It’s important for kitten owners to know that young kittens may have positive test results for 12 to 16 weeks after birth, without actually being infected with FIV, due to antibodies obtained from their mothers. Kittens with positive antibody tests should be retested when they are 6 to 8 months.

A negative test result indicates that antibodies against FIV are not present, and usually this means that the cat is not infected. However, since it takes 8 to 12 weeks after infection before detectable levels of antibody appear, it is possible that a cat will have a negative test even if infected with the FIV virus (similar to the situation in people and HIV.) If FIV is suspected, the cat should be retested in 8-12 weeks.


There is no cure for FIV infection in cats. Antibiotics and anti-fungal drugs are used when infections are present. Supportive care (IV fluids, blood transfusions, and forced-feeding of cats that are not eating) is often needed for critically ill patients. Corticosteroids may be indicated for cats with gingivitis/stomatitis; frequent dental cleanings are often needed as well. Drugs used to assist people with AIDS are not usually used in cats due to the costs of the medicines and the frequency of toxic side effects. In my practice, I use an integrative approach, combining supplements to assist in the cat’s recovery and boost the immune system. Herbs, homeopathics, and supplements may be useful in some sick cats. Some useful supplements to consider include Vim & Vigor by Pet Togethers and Arabinogalactan Powder and Vetri-DMG by VetriScience.


FIV is easily prevented by keeping all cats indoors to prevent exposure to the virus. For cats that must go outdoors, a new vaccine has recently become available. However, the vaccine is far from perfect, and vaccinated cats will test positive for FIV on the currently available commonly used test.

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, "The absence of tests that distinguish cats vaccinated with Fel-O-Vax® FIV from infected cats, coupled with questions regarding the vaccine’s ability to induce protection against all the subtypes and strains of FIV to which cats might be exposed, makes the decision to recommend use of this product far from straightforward. It is crucial that clients are adequately informed about the vaccine’s impact on future test results, and their decision should be reached only after careful consideration of both positive and negative implications. If the decision ultimately falls in favor of vaccination, cats should test negative immediately prior to receiving Fel-O-Vax® FIV."

Cat owners are advised to discuss FIV with their veterinarians to determine the best recommendation for their pets.



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