Feline FIV is a Virus, Not a Death Sentence

Each day as I finish my rounds at the shelter, I leave a list of things to be done for our team of veterinary assistants (three of the hardest workers on the planet!) that includes testing our newest cat residents for Feline Leukemia (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).  When I come in the next morning, my heart would sink if they told me that anyone tested positive for either disease.  This had always meant euthanasia since these cats were considered unadoptable.  But over the last several years, that opinion has changed.

Becky was the first FIV positive kitten adopted under the Shelter’s new FIV adoption program.

FIV infection is transmitted primarily by bite wounds.  It is not transmitted sexually or through casual contact.  Infected cats may live a completely normal and long life. Or they may at some point succumb to the virus, which attacks the immune system and allows the cat to become vulnerable to other infections such as respiratory, mouth, bladder, skin, and eye infections.  Once the cat develops recurring infections, the disease is inevitably fatal. What allows some cats to live with the virus and develop no symptoms and some cats to become ill is unknown and therefore unpredictable.

Kittens may test positive if born to an FIV positive mother but that is most likely due to transfer of antibodies and most of these kittens will test negative within six months.  True FIV infections in kittens are possible but not common.  Because of this, the Aiken County Animal Shelter has decided to adopt out FIV positive kittens.  We will retest these kittens in six months at no charge.  The adopter must understand that we can in no way guarantee these kittens will test negative, although statistics show that most kittens will become negative.

In the case of adult cats, things are a little trickier.  We have no way to predict the outcome for these cats.  We recently adopted out our first two FIV positive cats, Rowan and Martin.  They were adopted by someone who already has an FIV positive cat, so they posed no threat to spread the virus – an ideal placement.  Any home with no other cats would also be a great option.

Adoptable FIV positive kittens are now available at the County Shelter for just $10 each, including (left to right): Becky, Analeese and Tillie.

We are often asked if this infection is contagious to people or dogs, and the simple answer is no.  But if any member of the family is immunocompromised or on immunosuppressant drugs, to be safe we don’t recommend exposure to these cats.

All FIV positive cats should be kept indoors to prevent the cat from being exposed to other diseases.  They should also be kept inside to prevent the possibility of exposing other neighborhood cats to the infection through “cat fights” as we know cats are fiercely territorial.

I know that we are asking a lot of someone to adopt a cat that may have a shorter than normal life span.  But the way I look at it is that God made the majority of “pet species” with shorter life spans than ours.  So, we will inevitably experience the heartbreak when we lose them after 10-15 years.  These cats develop FIV through no fault of their own, but just by acting in the true nature of a cat.  Does this mean they shouldn’t experience a loving home for the time they do have on this earth? 

We always end this column with the words, “Their lives are in our hands,” and never has this been more true.  If you are selfless enough to consider adopting one of these cats, please let us know so we can contact you the next time we see that dreaded positive result on a test.

— By Dr. Lisa Levy, Aiken County Animal Shelter Veterinarian