FIV: Catching a Bad Case of Rumors

By Kristi Littrell

© 2005 Best Friends. All Rights Reserved

FIV stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. It's a lentivirus, meaning that it progresses very slowly, gradually affecting a cat's immune system. It is passed through blood transfusions and through serious, penetrating bite wounds - mainly by stray, intact tom cats. The most well-known lentivirus in humans is HIV. But the two are not at all the same, and you can't get FIV from a cat. In fact, the only thing about FIV that you can catch is a bad case of the rumors.

As long as cats with FIV are not exposed to diseases that their immune system can't handle, they can live perfectly normal lives. And they can only pass the virus on to other cats through a serious, penetrating bite wound. So unless your cats at home routinely tear each other to pieces, it's not a problem. (And if your cats are tearing each other up, that's probably a bigger problem!)

What's in a name?

Faith Maloney, director of Best Friends' animal care, has two FIV kitties. "I'd had Chevalier for four years before I moved house and decided to test all of my other cats for FIV at the same time. Since they don't fight, none of the others was FIV positive. I even took in another FIV kitty last year."

Here at Best Friends, we have two rooms exclusively for FIV kitties. "They're some of the most gentle and affectionate cats here at the sanctuary," says Judah Battista, who's in charge of all the cats here. Judah thinks the discovery of FIV, about 15 years ago, was a very mixed blessing. "If you go back 15 years, before anybody tested for FIV, all of these little guys would be in homes living long, normal lives. But we've discovered something we can put a name to - even if the cats never get sick!"

Dissolving old fears

Dr. Susan Cotter, professor of hematology and oncology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of those who have helped dissolve these old fears. "I wouldn't advise getting rid of a cat that tests positive for FIV," she says. "If the cat is young and healthy, it could be years before anything changes."

Best Friends veterinarian Dr. Virginia Clemans says the one important thing is to keep your FIV cat healthy. (That, of course, is good advice for all your cats!)

"The virus affects the immune system," she explains. "So keep FIV cats indoors. Make sure they get regular vaccinations. And give them a high-quality diet. Keep an eye on them, and take them to the veterinarian at the first sign of illness."

FIV Facts

1. The Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus is a slow virus that affects a cat's immune system over a period of years.

2. FIV is a cat-only disease and cannot be spread to humans or other non-felines.

3. FIV cats most often live long, healthy, and relatively normal lives with no symptoms at all.

4. FIV is not easily passed between cats. It cannot be spread casually - like in litter boxes, water and food bowls, or when snuggling and playing. It is rarely spread from a mother to her kittens.

5. The virus can be spread through blood transfusions, badly infected gums, or serious, penetrating bite wounds. (Bite wounds of this kind are extremely rare, except in free-roaming, unneutered tomcats.)

6. A neutered cat, in a home, is extremely unlikely to infect other cats, if properly introduced.

7. Many vets are not educated about FIV since the virus was only discovered 15 years ago.

8. FIV-positive cats should be kept as healthy as possible. Keep them indoors and free from stress, feed them a high-quality diet, keep and treat any secondary problems as soon as they arise.

Our Beautiful FIV+ Kitties Deserve A Family

Please consider opening your heart and your home to one of our wonderful kitties.  They are fully vetted, and the only thing you have to do is keep them indoors and feed them a healthy diet.