FIV: Not an Automatic Death Sentence!

November 20, 2013

A diagnosis of feline AIDS, or FIV, brings emotional distress and fear to a cat’s owner because for many years, such a diagnosis meant an automatic death sentence.  Enlightened veterinarians and cat owners know now that an infected cat can live a long, healthy life.  FIV, or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, weakens the immune system and makes the cat more susceptible to any infections to which it is exposed.  It does NOT transmit to humans.

Outdoor cats are the most commonly infected with FIV.  Because bite wounds are the most likely way the disease is transmitted, non-neutered male, outdoor felines are highest risk.  The disease can be present in a cat for years before it shows any signs of illness.  Infected mother cats can pass the virus antibodies to their kittens, but the kittens don’t always become infected with the FIV virus.  Kittens should not be tested for FIV until they reach 5 or 6 months of age because the test may show a false-positive in younger babies.

Several years ago, I adopted out an adorable young kitten to a father whose nine-year-old daughter had instantly fallen in love with the baby.  Following our advice, the man took the kitten to the veterinarian of his choice for its next set of vaccinations and an examination.  Unfortunately, the veterinarian also test the barely-three-month-old kitten for FIV.  The man called me later, distraught because his daughter’s beloved pet had received that positive diagnosis.  He was certain it was an immediate death sentence, because the vet had recommended euthanasia.

I told the father to take care of the kitten and have it tested again in 3-4 months.  Sure enough, the subsequent test came back negative.  Even if the second test had confirmed the diagnosis, little Rosy might have lived a long life with no health issues.

The rescue group with which I worked at the time took in a stray male, unneutered cat that was found to be FIV-Positive.  The veterinarian wanted to immediately euthanize him, but Barney had touched the hearts of several of us.  We decided to neuter him and try to find him a good home.  This older feline ended up with an older couple who adored him.  Barney followed commands, followed the man around like a puppy and proved to be a very smart kitty.  I hope he enjoyed several years in that home filled with love for him.

If you own a cat that has been diagnosed with FIV, it is important to isolate the animal from non-FIV-Positive cats, so that he doesn’t pass on the virus.  Your FIV cat should be seen by the veterinarian twice a year and more often if it develops any health problems.  Try to reduce your cat’s stress level by providing a calm environment and toys and climbers to keep him entertained.  Neutering the animal is the best way to reduce stress.  Always keep an FIV-Positive kitty indoors and out of trouble.

It is extremely important to feed the cat a high-quality diet and never give him uncooked food.  An FIV-Positive feline probably won’t die of the disease itself, but it might contract a secondary infection that causes death.  Any steps that boost the immune system are good.  Vitamins, anti-oxidants and Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are good, but do discuss this with your veterinarian before feeding them to your cat.

Signs of FIV mimic other diseases.  If your cat suffers from recurring infections of unexplained origin, enlarged lymph nodes, inflammation of the gums and/or tissue around the teeth, upper respiratory tract disease, including inflammation of the nose and eyes, other eye diseases, long-term kidney insufficiency, infections resulting from recurring bacterial or fungal infections, and nervous system abnormalities, seek professional help.   (

The only way to be certain of a diagnosis is to test for antibodies to the virus in the blood.  False positives are not uncommon, so insist on a second test in about 6 months, if your pet receives a positive diagnosis.

Because FIV cannot be cured, it must be controlled.  There are several methods used by veterinary professionals to support the cat’s immune system.  Antibiotics and re-hydrating fluids are given to FIV cats that become ill.  A fairly new treatment is antiviral chemotherapy with zidovudine (AZT), which is also used to treat human AIDS.  Results have been mixed, and veterinarians have conflicting opinions about the drug.

The important point to remember is that FIV is not an automatic death sentence.  Your cat can live a long, healthy life, if you take steps to provide him or her with a high-quality diet, vitamin supplements approved by your vet, regular medical checkups, and a stress-free indoor life.  When he does show signs of illness, have him seen by your veterinarian at once, so that he has the best chance to respond to medical treatment.

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