Cat laying down on hardwood floor while looking at camera

Key takeaway

Feline immunodeficiency virus is a disease that begins weakening your cat’s immune system as soon as it enters their body. Despite the potential for secondary illnesses and complications, your cat can live a normal and healthy life when FIV  is managed. 

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a virus that affects cats for life and often remains dormant during the first few months or years of infection. FIV, which works similarly to human HIV and AIDS, attacks and damages the existing white blood cells in your cat, weakening their immune system. Although it may sound scary, FIV can be managed with the appropriate treatment. That said, the first step in managing FIV in cats is recognizing the signs of this disease and seeking veterinary support as soon as possible.

In this guide, we’ll cover what FIV is, its timeline, causes, symptoms to watch for, available treatment options, and tips to prevent your cat from being infected. Continue reading for more information on this virus and its impact on cats, or use the links below to navigate the post.

What Is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) In Cats?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is a cat-specific virus that attacks a feline's immune system, making them more susceptible to infections.1 Cats with FIV can develop infections throughout their body, including in the mouth, digestive system, urinary tract, and skin. Additionally, FIV-positive cats are at a higher risk for certain blood cancers.

 

FIV is also known as cat HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or cat AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) because the effects are similar to that of HIV and AIDS in humans. Once a cat becomes infected, FIV can go undetected for months and even years. 

What Are The Stages Of FIV In Cats?

FIV often follows three stages known as the acute, latent, and terminal stage2, which include:

  • Stage 1—Acute Stage: The first stage is characterized by a lack of symptoms that can last a few months or years. Cat’s can present symptoms soon after becoming infected, such as a fever or enlarged lymph nodes.3 However, this will usually go away on its own, making the cat appear healthy.
  • Stage 2—Latent Stage: The second stage is characterized by cats being more prone to illnesses and can last for months or years because of their weakened immune system. This includes experiencing respiratory, urinary tract, and skin infections more frequently. 
  • Stage 3—Terminal Stage: The final stage, or AIDS stage, is where cats often develop chronic illnesses or cancers.
Graphic outlining stages of FIV in cats

How Do Cats Get FIV?

FIV can easily spread through saliva via bite wounds or blood transfusions.4 This is because the virus won’t survive long outside of the body, making transmission via sharing a food bowl, social grooming, sneezing, or being in close contact less likely. 

Graphic with cats fighting, explaining how FIV is transmitted

Feline immunodeficiency virus is most common among cats that roam the outdoors, male cats, and older felines because of the possibility of territorial disputes and aggressive fights. FIV can also be passed down from a mother to her kittens during birth.5 However, FIV-positive antibodies passed down from the mother may clear from a kitten’s system after six months. 

Symptoms Of FIV In Cats

Several symptoms indicate FIV in cats. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), signs of FIV include:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Disheveled coat
  • Poor appetite
  • Cat diarrhea 
  • Abnormal appearance or inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
  • Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis)
  • Inflammation of the mouth (stomatitis)
  • Dental disease
  • Common cat skin conditions, including redness or hair loss
  • Non-healing wounds 
  • Sneezing
  • Eye or nasal discharge 
  • Frequent urination, straining to urinate, or urinating outside of litter box
  • Behavior change

Keep in mind that symptoms may not be present until many years after your cat becomes infected. So, if you notice the symptoms mentioned above in your cat at any point, it’s a good idea to consult a veterinarian. During your appointment, make sure to provide them with a thorough list of the symptoms you’ve seen your cat exhibit. 

Cat laying down in the background while vet waits for blood test in the foreground

How Are Cats Diagnosed With FIV?

The only way to diagnose cats with FIV is by confirming the presence of the disease with a blood test that measures the antibodies against the virus.The most common type of blood test for FIV is known as the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test. Only a veterinarian can perform this type of test, making it necessary to visit your vet in person. Many veterinarians will recommend you get your cat tested for the following reasons: 

  • If you’re planning to adopt a cat
  • You own a cat that primarily resides outside
  • There’s another FIV-positive cat in the home
  • Your cat gets bitten by another feline 

Depending on the results of your cat’s blood work, the veterinarian will determine whether additional testing is necessary. This is because the test only checks if antibodies against FIV are present rather than the virus itself, so it may not be enough to provide a positive diagnosis. In some cases, cats may be infected with FIV but have a negative result because the antibodies haven’t developed.7 Cats with severely compromised immune systems may also not produce enough antibodies to be detected and test negative.

If your cat has FIV, a veterinarian will be able to answer your most pressing questions, the most suitable treatment plan, and how to prevent spreading it to other felines. 

Can FIV In Cats Be Treated?

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for FIV in cats. However, cats may live comfortably and enjoy many years of life when their condition is taken care of. The treatment options available to cats with FIV are designed to prolong the asymptomatic period of the virus. Treatment recommendations may include:

  • Regularly visiting the veterinarian at least every six months
  • Treating secondary infections that arise
  • Providing a well-balanced diet free of uncooked food that can cause food-borne infections
  • Fluid and electrolyte therapy
  • Removing tumors
  • Controlling parasites
  • Anti-inflammatory medication 
  • Medication for immune support 

Once your cat begins exhibiting symptoms, the priority should be managing them as best as possible. It’s important to obtain treatment promptly if your cat tests positive for FIV. Not doing so can lead to secondary infections morphing into life-threatening conditions, cancer, kidney failure, or blood diseases.8 Keep an eye on your cat’s symptoms and consult your veterinarian if there are any sudden health or behavioral changes.

How Do You Prevent FIV In Cats?

Because FIV in cats is most common in male outdoor cats that tend to fight, the best preventative measure is keeping cats indoors. Indoor cats can avoid contact with felines infected by the virus. If your cat has an adventurous spirit, consider walking them on a leash or keeping them in a confined space outdoors.

Other ways to prevent FIV in cats are spaying or neutering your cats and keeping them away from other FIV-positive cats. Spaying or neutering your cat is especially important if other cats live in the household since this can decrease the chance of fights breaking out due to undefined social structures. It can also minimize the likelihood of your feline fighting other cats if they’re roaming outside. 

 Graphic with tips for preventing FIV in cats

Although there’s a vaccine against FIV available, it’s not 100% effective.9 Plus, the FIV vaccine can affect the results of FIV tests because it provides cats with antibodies against the virus. So, the only way to truly prevent your cat from developing FIV is by keeping a close eye on them and minimizing exposure to the virus. If you’re interested in vaccinating your cat, check in with a veterinarian to see if it’s the right choice for them.

Woman kissing cat on the head while cat looks up

Can Humans Get FIV From Cats?

No, humans can’t get FIV from cats. While FIV is similar to HIV and AIDS, both viruses are species-specific. This means that the virus will only affect certain species while leaving other species unscathed. In the case of feline immunodeficiency virus, the virus will only spread from cat to cat.

Final Notes

Feline immunodeficiency virus in cats is a difficult disease to pinpoint, especially during the early stages when cats may be asymptomatic. However, regular visits to your vet can help you catch the disease early before it takes complete hold of your cat’s immune system. Although there’s no definitive cure for feline aids, cats can continue to live a quality lifestyle if the condition and secondary infections are appropriately managed. 

If your cat has FIV and is suffering from conditions that are medically treatable, including skin issues, allergies, or behavioral problems, vet telemedicine for pets can be beneficial. At Dutch, we’ll match you and your pet with a licensed veterinarian that can evaluate your feline remotely and ensure they receive the care they need. The best part is that you don’t have to wait weeks for an appointment. Schedule your online visit today and receive a specialized treatment plan right to your doorstep. 

References

  1. Tizard, Ian. “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 15 Nov. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/disorders-affecting-multiple-body-systems-of-cats/feline-immunodeficiency-virus-fiv.

  2. The Truth About Feline AIDS. Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, 8 July 2021, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/the-truth-about-feline-aids/

  3. Tizard, Ian. “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).”

  4. The Truth About Feline AIDS.

  5. “Common Cat Diseases.” ASPCA, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,  https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-diseases/

  6. Tizard, Ian. “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).”
  7. “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 17 June 2021, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-immunodeficiency-virus-fiv.

  8. Common Cat Diseases.” ASPCA

  9. Tizard, Ian. “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).