FeLV and FIV are untreatable contagious diseases that can cause deadly complications in cats. In some cats, FeLV can become inactive, which can make the outcome difficult to predict. For example, the immune system of some cats can eliminate the infection before the cat becomes sick. Other cats carry the disease, never getting sick but still spreading disease.
Like FeLV, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is also contagious among cats. Similar to HIV in humans, FIV causes illness by attacking the patient’s immune system. A cat can be infected with FIV for many years without showing any clinical signs of illness. Also similar to HIV, the clinical signs of disease in FIV-infected cats tend to be related to illnesses other than FIV.
What Are the Signs of FeLV and FIV?
FeLV and FIV can be tricky because not every cat that becomes infected develop clinical signs or long-term complications associated with the viruses.
Clinical signs associated with FeLV or FIV infection can include fever, lethargy (tiredness), chronic respiratory infections, and chronic dental and gum infections. Some FeLV-positive cats also go on to develop bone marrow problems and certain cancers. Additional clinical signs associated with FIV infection can include weight loss, chronic diarrhea and chronic skin and eye infections.
How Do Cats Become Infected With FeLV and FIV?
FeLV is generally transmitted through contact with saliva from an infected cat. Social behaviors such as mutual grooming and sharing food or water bowls can spread the disease. Kittens can become infected in utero or during the first days of life as their mothers nurse and care for them.
Like FeLV, FIV is also transmitted through contact with saliva from an infected cat. However, most cats contract FIV through bite wounds sustained during fights with FIV-infected cats rather than through friendly social behaviors. Because of the territorial behavior and related aggression of cats, roaming outside tends to increase the risk for exposure to FIV, especially for male cats.
Neither FeLV nor FIV can be transmitted to humans, dogs or other pets in the household.
How Are FeLV and FIV Diagnosed?
Many veterinarians use a rapid-result test called a SNAP test to help diagnose FeLV and FIV in cats. The SNAP test is very accurate, very quick, and can be performed in your veterinarian’s office using a very small amount of blood. If your veterinarian obtains a questionable result on the SNAP test, additional testing may be recommended via an outside laboratory, results of which can take several days to obtain.
When Should Cats Be Tested?
Because FeLV or FIV infection can take so many presentations, your veterinarian may want to test your cat if he or she seems to be sick, especially if your cat has a fever.
Kittens or cats being introduced into the home should be tested for FeLV and FIV, especially if they are sick.
It is important to discuss with your veterinarian the risk of of your cat contracting these diseases. There are vaccines available - so talk with your veterinarian about your cat’s needs.
What can I do if I have a FeLV or FIV-positive cat?
Most veterinarians recommend keeping FeLV- or FIV-positive cats indoors. When cats infected with FeLV or FIV continue to spend time outside, they are at increased risk for exposure to other viruses, parasites, and infections that their bodies may be unable to handle. Additionally, they are likely to sustain wounds (through cat fights or other trauma) that may fail to heal properly or become infected due to the compromised immune function associated with FeLV or FIV infection. Keeping these cats indoors not only helps protect cats from injuries and other infections but also reduces the possibility that these cats will transmit these viruses to other cats.
If your FeLV or FIV positive cat develops any signs of disease as reviewed above, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian ASAP, as prompt treatment can help these cats live longer and have higher quality of life.
Good nutrition is an absolute requirement for these cats. Their bodies are stressed due to chronic infection and they usually have a higher need of nutrients in comparison to their healthy counterparts, so make sure to feed a high quality complete and balanced diet.