FIV and FeLV

This article is designed to help you better understand your pet’s condition. This is not a substitute for a veterinary diagnosis; it intended for reference purposes and to supplement an existing diagnosis after a veterinary examination. If you have questions or concerns, please contact us at 740-432-5980. It is absolutely vital to have a veterinary diagnosis prior to following any of the instructions provided here.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) are two very similar diseases found in domestic cats.

  • They are both life-long viral diseases that have no known cure.
  • Both viruses are species specific and can only be spread to other cats. Humans and dogs cannot contract FeLV or FIV.
  • Both viruses attack the immune system of the cat; therefore the virus itself is not fatal. The cat will eventually die of secondary infections or disease because the virus has compromised their immune system in such away that their body can no longer heal or defend itself against infectious agents.
    • Both diseases are remarkably similar to HIV and AIDS in humans. The virus FIV is actually related to the HIV virus.
  • Both viruses can be easily spread to other cats
  • Both viruses are transmitted through saliva and blood such as deep bite wounds and scratches. These viruses are also transmitted to the unborn kittens of infected mothers and via sexual intercourse.
    • FeLV is transmitted much easier than FIV. FeLV can be transmitted through much more casual contact such as grooming and sharing food and water dishes, litter pans, or toys. The virus is shed in nasal discharge and even urine and feces.
  • While some owners elect to euthanise an FIV/FeLV positive cat, keep in mind that a positive test does not have to be a death sentence. Many cats will live happy healthy lives for months and even years. However their condition can rapidly decline once they do become ill. These cats also become sick much easier so their healthcare in general is more time consuming and costly than a cat without the disease.
  • Both viruses can be easily diagnosed through a simple blood test with quick and accurate results.
  • Neither virus can survive for more than a few hours outside the body. So while they can survive on surfaces for a short time, direct contact is typically required for transmission. Disinfecting a home after a positive cat has passed is not necessary prior to introducing a new cat.

What Cats Should Be Tested?

  • When in doubt; ALWAYS TEST!
  • Always test any new cat BEFORE introducing it to your other cats
  • Kittens should also be tested if the status of the father and mother are unknown as these diseases can be passed to their offspring.
  • Any outdoor cats that get in fights with other cats should be tested annually.
  • Any cat that exhibits suspicious symptoms.

What are the signs of disease caused by FIV and FeLV?

An infected cat’s health may deteriorate progressively or be characterized by recurrent illness interspersed with periods of relative health. Sometimes not appearing for years after infection, signs of immunodeficiency can appear anywhere throughout the body.

  • Poor coat condition and persistent fever with a loss of appetite are common
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Persistent Fever
  • Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and mouth (stomatitis) and chronic or recurrent infections of the skin, urinary bladder, and upper respiratory tract are often present.
  • Persistent diarrhea can also be a problem, as can a variety of eye conditions.
  • Slow but progressive weight loss is common, followed by severe wasting late in the disease process.
  • Various kinds of cancer and blood diseases are much more common in these cats.
    • FeLV is actually the leading cause of cancer in cats
  • In unspayed female cats: abortion of kittens or other reproductive failures
  • Seizures, behavior changes, and other neurological disorders.

Vaccines and Prevention

Both viruses have vaccines available. The FeLV vaccine is very effective and readily available; we offer this vaccine at our clinic and recommend it for any cat that goes outside or that is exposed to unvaccinated cats.

As with HIV, the development of an effective vaccine against FIV is difficult because of the high number and variations of the virus strains. The vaccine has little proven efficacy due to so many variations in the virus. The biggest problem with vaccinating a cat for FIV is that once it has been vaccinated it will always test positive for the disease after that for the rest of the cats life. This makes diagnosis extremely difficult. For these reasons we do not recommend this vaccine. We do not feel the benefits outweigh the risks involved.

The best way to prevent either disease is to isolate cats from others that may infect them. Even vaccines are not 100%. Keeping cats strictly indoors and only introducing new cats after they have been tested is the best way to protect your cat.

How should FIV &/or FeLV-infected cats be managed?

  • Confine infected cats indoors to reduce their exposure to other infectious agents carried by animals and to prevent the spread of infection to other cats in the neighborhood.
  • Spay or neuter infected cats.
  • Feed nutritionally complete and balanced diets.
  • Avoid uncooked food, such as raw meat and eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products because the risk of food-borne bacterial and parasitic infections is much higher in immunosuppressed cats. Schedule wellness visits with your veterinarian at least once every six months.
  • Although a detailed physical examination of all body systems should be performed, your veterinarian should pay special attention to the health of the gums, eyes, skin, and lymph nodes. A complete blood count, serum biochemical analysis, and a urine analysis should be performed at every examination. Additionally, your cat’s weight should be accurately measured and recorded, as weight loss is often the first sign of deterioration.
  • Closely monitor the health and behavior of your infected cat. Alert your veterinarian to any changes in your cat’s health immediately.
  • There is no scientific evidence that alternative, immunomodulator, or antiviral medications have any positive benefits on the health or longevity of healthy infected cats.

Life Expectancy

It is impossible to accurately predict the life expectancy of a cat infected with FeLV or FIV. With appropriate care and under ideal conditions, infected cats can remain in apparent good health for many months, although most succumb to a FIV/FeLV-related disease within two or three years after becoming infected. If your cat has already experienced one or more severe illnesses as a result of FIV/FeLV infection, or if persistent fever, weight loss, or cancer is present, a much shorter survival time can be expected.

Guernsey Veterinary Clinic, Cassie Gombeda, RVT

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