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Dear Your Own Vet,
It was discovered that one of my cats is positive for the Feline AIDS virus.
In this case, could I get another cat? Or is it selfish to bring a perfectly healthy cat into our household?
What is Feline Aids and how is it transmitted?
Feline Aids is caused by FIV (Feline Immumodeficiency Virus) which is a lentivirus in the same family as human AIDS. (1)(3) It affects cats worldwide and causes feline AIDS. There are at least five types of FIV. FIV is not typically fatal for cats, as they can live relatively healthily for many years. FIV was first discovered in 1986 in a colony of cats, and has since been identified worldwide (3) It affects the immune system of cats. Though most cats will eventually die of secondary illnesses, many cats with Feline AIDS live quite a long time before they become ill. (4) FIV infects blood cells (CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, and macrophages) and can debilitate the immune system over time by the infection and exhaustion of T-helper (CD4+) cells.
Humans cannot be infected by FIV nor can cats be infected by HIV. (3)(4) The American Associations of Feline Practitioners recommend against euthanizing FIV+ cats, as spaying or neutering cats effectively controls it’s spread – neutered cats are less likely fight for territory. The chance that an FIV infected cat will pass the disease on to other cats within a household is there, and increases with serious fighting or biting. There is a risk that cats living outside of a home can spread the disease to others and can also spread the disease in a group setting in a shelter. Gingivitis (inflammed gums and mouth), rhinitis (sneezing and nasal discharge), conjunctivitis (eye infections), pneumonitis (chest infections), enteritis ( diarrhoea) and dermatitis (skin inflammation/infections) are seen in the later stages of infection. FIV+ cats are less likely to develop AIDS-like symptoms than HIV+ humans. (3)
The disease occurs in three stages: First is the Acute Stage (1–2 months after transmission) in which fever, depression, and swollen lymph nodes are seen. Second is the Subclinical Stage (4 weeks to X months after transmission), in which symptoms of the disease decrease or disappear; however, cats stay infected for life. Third is the Chronic Stage, in which cats succumb to infections due to a suppressed immune system. FIV infects other cats, and is found naturally in African Lions. They do not show disease symptoms, perhaps because they have developed evolutionary resistance to the virus. (3)
Saliva to blood (biting) is the primary source of spreading the virus, such as wounds made in territorial battles between intact males (3)(4) It is unlikely (but not impossible) that cats will spread FIV by drinking or eating out of the same food dish, or by mutual grooming. (1) Indoor cats are less likely to be infected, provided they do not come in contact with infected cats.(3) FIV may also be transmitted from pregnant females to their offspring, or by nursing. (3)(1) Not all FIV queens pass the virus on to their kittens. All kittens from FIV mothers should be tested for the FIV antibodies after six months. (1) When intact males breed they often bite the female which could lead to transmission as well.
Veterinarians will check a cat’s history, look for clinical signs, and possibly do a blood test for FIV antibodies. It should be noted that this testing identifies those cats that carry the FIV antibody, and not the virus. Therefore, a positive test does not mean the cat carries FIV. False positives occur when the cat carries the antibody (which is harmless), but does not carry the actual virus for example when kittens are tested after drinking the antibodies in mother’s milk, and when testing cats that are vaccinated for FIV. Cats that have been vaccinated will test positive for the FIV antibody for the rest of their life, even though they are not infected. A positive FIV antibody test by itself should never be used as criteria for euthanasia. Early detection helps maintain the cat’s health and prevents spreading infection to other cats. With proper care, infected cats can live long and healthy lives. (3)
If your cat has been diagnosed as FIV-positive, this might simply be a matter of ensuring he gets a sound diet, with added vitamins, anti-oxidants, and Omega 3/ Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as prompt, aggressive treatment of infections and other conditions as they crop up. Even flea control is important, as fleas transmit a number of other parasites such as the Haemabartonella. Also, flea bites can become infected. (1) Treatment is supportive,with antibiotics, fluids and force feeding. (3)
AZT has been shown to help some cats with FIV infection. (2) Reverse transcriptase inhibitors such as AZT, PMEA, or ddC can cause clinical improvement in infected cats. However, severe side effects can occur. Before using these potent drugs, be sure your local veterinarian has experience using them in cats. (2) In 2006, Lymphocyte T-Cell Immune Modulator was developed and is sold in the USA. It is an injection, used for treating cats infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and it’s symptoms. Side effects are minimal. Lymphocyte T-Cell Immune Modulator is a potent regulator of CD-4 lymphocyte production and function. It has been shown to increase lymphocyte numbers. (3)
The development of an effective vaccine against FIV is difficult because a number of strains exist. “Single strain” vaccines, i.e. vaccines that only protect against a single virus variant have already been developed. A dual-subtype vaccine for FIV released in 2002 called Fel-O-Vax made it possible to immunize cats against more FIV strains. The vaccine has shown variable protection. Vaccination will cause cats to have positive results on FIV tests, making diagnosis more difficult. (3)
It is important to realize that a positive test for FIV is not a mandatory death sentence. With a good quality diet and aggressive treatment of secondary infections, an FIV-positive cat can have a reasonably normal life span. FIV infection does not lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in cats as often as HIV leads to AIDS in people. The largest threat to FIV-positive cats is secondary infections, such as bladder, skin, and upper respiratory infections. Kidney failure is also frequently seen in cats with FIV.
At-risk cats (those who go outdoors) should be tested annually. All new cats should be tested before bringing them into the home, but kittens should not be tested before six months, because they can show “false positive” antibodies from the mother cat. (1)