You’ve probably heard a great deal about something called FIV and FeLV from the rescue organization or breeder where you got your kitten.  We’ll explain these illnesses here and why it’s important to protect your cat against both.

What is FeLV?

Feline leukemia virus (feLV) is a retrovirus and cats infected with FeLV serve as source of infection. The virus is shed in very high quantities in saliva and nasal secretions, but also in urine, feces, and milk from infected cats. Cat-to-cat transfer of virus may occur from a bite wound, during mutual grooming, and (though rarely) through the shared use of litter boxes and feeding dishes. Transmission can also take place from an infected mother cat to her kittens, either before they are born or while they are nursing. FeLV doesn’t survive long outside a cat’s body-probably less than a few hours under normal household conditions.  There is no cure. Infected cats live a life of compromised immunity, though not necessarily one of poor health.  Many cats die of FeLV due to secondary infections and cancers, a result of the cat’s compromised immunity.

What Cats are at Risk of Infection?
Cats living with infected cats or with cats of unknown FeLV status are at greatest risk of infection.  Cats that go outside are at risk of being exposed to FeLV positive cats. Any kitten born to an infected mother is also at risk. Cats can be infected at any age.

Signs of Infection
During the early stages of infection, it is common for cats to exhibit no signs of disease at all. However, over time-weeks, months, or years-the cat’s health may progressively deteriorate or be characterized by recurrent illness interspersed with periods of relative health. Signs can include:

  • Loss of appetite/Persistent fever/Persistent diarrhea
  • Slow but progressive weight loss, followed by severe wasting late in the disease process
  • Poor coat condition/Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Pale gums and other mucus membranes
  • Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and mouth (stomatitis)
  • Infections of the skin, urinary bladder, and upper respiratory tract
  • Seizures, behavior changes, and other neurological disorders
  • A variety of eye conditions
  • In unspayed female cats, abortion of kittens or other reproductive failures

FeLV is diagnosed with a blood test. The only sure way to protect cats is to prevent their exposure to FeLV-infected cats.

Protection:  A vaccine against FeLV
Fortunately there is a vaccine against this pernicious illness.  Any cat that goes outside should be vaccinated against FeLV, but pet owners should be realistic about what ‘outdoor exposure’ really means.  If your cat has any contact with outside cats through a screen door for example or if he or she regularly meets outdoor cats in an indoor setting, then your cat is at risk and should be vaccinated.  The vaccine is safe, but must be boosted every year.  Cats that have never been vaccinated require two doses spaced three weeks apart.  The vaccine can be given at any point in a cat’s age after 8 weeks provided he or she tests negative for the disease.

What is FIV?

FIV stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Like the Leukemia virus, it is a retrovirus and gradually breaks down a cat’s immune system.  Sometimes known as Feline ‘AIDS’, the virus is quite different from the one that infects humans and people can not acquire AIDS from their cats or visa versa.

Patients May Not Show Signs of Infection
Cats who are infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) may not show symptoms until years after the initial infection. Although the virus is slow-acting, a cat’s immune system is severely weakened once the disease takes hold. This makes the cat susceptible to various secondary infections. Infected cats who receive supportive medical care and are kept in a stress-free, indoor environment can live relatively comfortable lives for months to years before the disease advances enough to cause overt signs of illness and/or death. Many people confuse FIV with Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Although these diseases are in the same retrovirus family and cause many similar secondary conditions, FeLV and FIV are different diseases.

FIV Symptoms

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

FIV is transmitted from cat to cat through deep bite wounds; usually occur outdoors during aggressive fights and territorial disputes. It can also be transmitted from a FIV-infected mother cat to her kitten.

No Vaccine and No Cure

Unfortunately, there is nothing that one can do for an FIV positive patient except to provide it supportive care when it gets sick.  It’s possible for FIV + cats to have months, if not years, of good health before succumbing to the disease. If your cat is positive and you elect to keep her in your life, we can map out a medical treatment plan to keep her healthy and happy and talk to you about how to prevent her from infecting other cats.