Feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, affects up to 3 percent of cats in the United States, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University. Like HIV in humans, FIV weakens the immune system over time, causing the kitty to be more vulnerable to all types of infections.
But also like HIV, being diagnosed with FIV is not a “death sentence.” However, it can impact your cat’s health and quality of life, especially if it goes untreated or undetected.
If your cat has been diagnosed with feline immunodeficiency virus, or if you are considering adopting a cat who is FIV-positive, here’s what you need to know.
1. FIV is a lifelong infection
There is currently no cure for FIV. Once a cat is infected, they have it for life. Treatment involves keeping FIV-positive cats indoors to reduce the spread of the infection and exposure to other infections, feeding them a special diet to avoid the risk of foodborne bacterial or parasitic infections, and having frequent wellness visits (twice a year) with a veterinarian to monitor overall health and catch problems early.
An infected cat may go years without symptoms, and they may seem like a perfectly “normal” cat. The more you help your cat live a healthy lifestyle, the longer their asymptomatic period tends to be. Since you can’t “see” FIV, at least in the beginning, cats who roam outdoors should be tested for FIV regularly—even if they appear healthy.
2. FIV is transmitted through bodily fluids
Most transmissions of FIV occur via saliva, particularly from biting. This creates the most direct way for the virus to enter another cat. Sexual contact is not as common a route of transmission for cats, and casual contact like grooming is unlikely to spread the virus.
For these reasons, it’s rare for an indoor cat with healthy and stable social structures to get FIV.
3. FIV is most common in outdoor, aggressive, male cats
Outdoor cats fight more frequently over territory, and male cats in particular can be very aggressive. If you have a male cat who likes to go outside, consider neutering your cat: This tends to reduce aggression. (There are other benefits of neutering and spaying cats, most notably to reduce crowding in animal shelters.)
4. There’s not currently an FIV vaccine available.
There used to be: The now-discontinued vaccine only protected against *some* strains of FIV, and it was therefore useless in certain regions where unprotected strains were more prevalent.
Worse, the FIV vaccine causes cats to develop FIV antibodies, which is technically a good thing; however, the downfall is that these antibodies would lead to false-positive tests for FIV. Tragically, this resulted in many unnecessary euthanasias. For these reasons, the benefits of the FIV vaccine did not seem to outweigh the drawbacks, and the vaccine was discontinued. (Note that a cat who has tested positive for FIV does not need to be euthanized, and they can still live long and otherwise healthy lives.)
5. FIV antibodies can take months to appear after transmission
Diagnosing FIV uses a blood test that looks for antibodies against the virus. Once infected, FIV antibodies don’t immediately appear. As a result, if your cat has been bit or in a fight, veterinarians suggest waiting 8 to 12 weeks before getting your cat tested for FIV. If you test them earlier than that, the test may come back negative even if they’ve actually been infected.
6. No, you can’t get HIV from an FIV-positive cat
And your cat can’t get FIV from an HIV-positive human. These viruses are in the same viral family and work the same way, but they’re specific to each species.
Again, many FIV-positive cats live happy and otherwise normal lives, especially with proper love and care from their humans. To help your cat live the healthiest life, here are pet health myths you should know about.