10 Things Every Cat Owner Should Know About Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

FIV catYesterday, we ran across this important question in our Internet travels: Should I adopt a cat with feline immunodeficiency virus? We had to help find an answer.

In short, our answer is “yes, you should.” Put less emphatically, you shouldn’t avoid adopting a cat simply because he or she has FIV. But here’s what you—and every cat owner—should know about the disease.

1. It can’t be transmitted to humans.

Nope, nope, nope. It also can’t be transmitted to other species, even through a bite, so there’s no need to be concerned about your dog or other pet contracting the virus from an FIV-positive cat.

2. It’s most often transmitted through deep bite wounds.

The virus can transmit if either the bitten cat or the biter is infected with FIV. It doesn’t often transmit through sexual contact, but because it is shed in saliva and because toms will sometimes bite their mate, it is possible.[1] Other transmission methods include contaminated needles and blood transfusions, as well as in rare cases, from mothers to kittens.[2]

3. FIV is a fragile virus.

A friend’s cat is FIV-positive and you engaged in a nice cuddle with it while visiting, then went right home and pet your own cat? That’s no cause for concern. The virus won’t survive on food bowls, in baskets, or on litter trays, either. You won’t carry it on your clothes and transmit it later.

4.  Outdoor, unneutered male cats who fight more are the most susceptible.

According to the ASPCA,  “free-roaming, outdoor intact male cats who fight” are the cats who most frequently contract FIV, though any cat can. Indoor cats are least likely to experience infection.[3]

5. But it’s fairly uncommon.

In the United States, only about 1.5 to 3% of healthy cats are infected. In sick or susceptible cats, those numbers can rise to almost 15%. Rates also differ globally.[4]

6. There is a vaccine.

There is actually a vaccine for FIV, but many vets don’t consider it necessary for a cat to live a health, happy life. You should certainly speak to your vet about your specific circumstances and the advantages and disadvantages of the FIV vaccine.

7. There are sometimes no symptoms.

It is entirely possible that an FIV-infected feline won’t show symptoms for years. If they develop, though, they can steadily or erratically progress. According to the ASPCA, these symptoms demand a veterinary examination:

Enlarged lymph nodes
Weight loss
Disheveled coat
Poor appetite
Abnormal appearance or inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis)
Inflammation of the mouth (stomatitis)
Dental disease
Skin redness or hair loss
Wounds that don’t heal
Discharge from eyes or nose
Frequent urination, straining to urinate or urinating outside of litter box
Behavior change[5]

8. Every cat should be tested. 

FIV is diagnosed through a blood test that every cat should have. While no test is 100 percent accurate 100 hundred percent of the time, your vet will be able to consider the results and determine if further testing is necessary. Knowing your cats FIV status is important so that you can pay attention to possible signs or symptoms that manifest later in life.

9. There is no antiviral treatment for FIV.  

Despite this, veterinarians are often established at treating FIV through symptom management or through extension of the period where cats are not showing symptoms. Sometimes that treatment includes medication for other infections, anti-inflammatories, and diet recommendations. 

10. Cats with FIV can live healthy, happy lives.

As mentioned, sometimes cats won’t show symptoms of this slow-moving virus.

But according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, extra care may be required, mostly in the form of close attention to your cat’s “normal.”

If you can determine a baseline for his healthy behavior, you can know best when it’s slightly off.  Other care involves twice yearly veterinary visits, spaying or neutering, and lessening exposure to potential infections. (Think “no raw food diet.”)

Have you ever owned an FIV-positive cat? What was your care experience like? Share your story in a comment.


[2] http://metrowesthumanesociety.org/fiv.html

[3] https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/feline-immunodeficiency-virus-fiv

[4] http://www.vet.cornell.edu/FHC/health_resources/brochure_fiv.cfm

[5] https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/feline-immunodeficiency-virus-fiv