Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV: A virus that, like HIV for humans, weakens the immune system of a cat and makes it more difficult for the cat to fight off infection. While the virus is definitely not good, it is not nearly as terrible as some may believe. There are so many common misconceptions and negative stigmas surrounding FIV, which unfortunately lead to the unnecessary deaths of many cats.
I am new to the FIV world. Like so many people, I didn’t know anything about it, until about five or six months ago when I rescued a stray cat that had been living around my apartment complex – Sassy. After taking her to the vet to get the necessary tests and vaccinations, I learned that she was FIV+. I had heard of FIV before, but didn’t know any more information other than it was a disease that cats could get. Upon learning that Sassy was FIV+, I naturally had a million questions, which I asked the vet. The answers that I got to my questions were not at all helpful. I was told that Sassy had AIDS and would maybe live a couple more years; that she would need to be kept as an outdoor cat only; that she could never be around my other cats because she would pass the disease onto them; and all of this was true only if I decided not to put her to sleep, which one vet tech recommended because “FIV is a death sentence.” I left the vet with Sassy, sobbing and unsure of what to do next. As soon as I got home, I took to the internet and began reading anything and everything I could find that had to do with FIV. That is how I learned that everything the vet had told me was so, so wrong…
Having FIV means that a cat’s immune system might not be able to fight off an illness or infection as well as a non-FIV cat would be able to. It does NOT mean that an FIV+ cat will constantly be sick. If an FIV+ cat does happen to get sick, it is important that they are taken to the vet and given proper treatment as soon as possible because a simple cold could turn into something more serious without the appropriate care and attention. As a personal testimony, Sassy has never once been sick or even shown any signs of having any illness in the 5 months that I’ve had her.Misconception #2: FIV+ Cats Will Only Live for a Few Years
FIV is a virus that takes a long time to affect a cat’s immune system. The virus attaches itself to specific cells in the immune system and reduces the number of these cells. However, it takes several years for the number of these cells to be reduced to a low enough number that will have any effect on how the immune system works. With many infected cats, the immune system goes on working just fine with no signs or symptoms that the cat has a weakened immune system at all. Some cats may live their entire normal-lenghthed life without their owners ever even knowing the cats were infected. As long as an FIV+ cat is given proper care – healthy diet, stress-free environment, appropriate veterinary care – the cat can live just as long of a life as any other non-FIV cat.
Misconception #3: FIV Can Be Passed to Humans and Dogs
FIV is a feline ONLY virus – it cannot be spread to any other species.
FIV is not like a cold – it cannot be passed through casual contact. Many may confuse FIV with FeLV, which can be spread through casual contact. The only real way that FIV can be spread from one cat to another is through a serious bite wound in which the virus is injected directly into the bloodstream. While the virus is present in a cat’s saliva, it cannot get passed through shared food and water bowls or through mutual grooming. The reason for this is because FIV does not live long outside of the body. It dies within seconds. Also, the mucus membrane in a cat’s mouth is a strong and effective barrier to the virus, meaning that even if the virus does enter a cat’s mouth, it is unlikely to cross the mucus membrane into the blood stream and will die in the stomach. Even kittens that are born to an FIV+ mom are rarely infected with the virus. For the virus to pass from one cat to another, a bite wound must occur in which the skin is broken and contact is made between saliva and blood.Misconception #5: FIV+ Cats Cannot Coexist with FIV- Cats
Because so many believe that FIV can easily be passed between cats, it is commonly suggested that FIV+ cats be kept separate from FIV- cats or that FIV+ cats be kept as only cats. This is simply not the case. This is a point in which the temperament of the cat needs to be taken into consideration. Obviously not ALL cats are going to get along. However, as long as proper introductions are made, all cats in the household are spayed/neutered, and no cats in the household are aggressive, there is a very minimal risk that the virus will be spread.
Since I rescued Sassy, I have talked to many, many FIV+ cat parents. Every one of them has given me a personal testimony of successful integration and coexistence between their FIV+ cat(s) and FIV- cat(s). Some have even given me positive testimonies of their formerly aggressive FIV+ cats that were once kept separate being successfully integrated with their FIV- cats.
While there are cases in which FIV+ cats should be kept separate from other cats, that is not a blanket statement that can be applied to all cases.
Misconception #6: FIV+ Cats Should be Euthanized
Unfortunately, this is a common belief. My vet (my good vet, not the one that gave me all of the incorrect information about FIV) strongly urged me to get Sassy microchipped ASAP because if she were to get out and get picked up by a shelter, she would be put down as soon as she tested positive for FIV. The vet tech at the first vet I talked to even suggested that I put Sassy down because she didn’t believe that an FIV+ cat could live a normal and healthy life – she believed that FIV is a death sentence. That belief is absolutely not true, for all of the reasons stated above.