Meet Garfield. Left on his own as a youngster, he was picked up from a feral cat colony. He is young, handsome, loves people and children. He isn’t good with other cats, probably because he was beat up as a kitten. So why hasn’t he been adopted? Because he has feline immunodeficiency virus.

Meet Garfield. Left on his own as a youngster, he was picked up from a feral cat colony. He is young, handsome, loves people and children. He isn’t good with other cats, probably because he was beat up as a kitten. So why hasn’t he been adopted? Because he has feline immunodeficiency virus.


There is such a fear and stigma when it comes to FIV positive cats. Many live out their lives in a cage in a shelter; others are needlessly euthanized long before their time. I always told my HIV-positive brother he was very lucky he was not born a cat.


In 1986, a cat appeared with clinical symptoms strikingly similar to those seen in humans with HIV. He was found to have a feline immunodeficiency virus that became known as FIV. Like HIV, the virus is acquired through blood or sexual contact.


Aggressive whole male cats who are territorial and have a propensity for fighting are at a higher risk to acquire and pass on FIV. Those same males can pass on the virus through sexual contact with females, not only to the female but also to the unborn kittens. But, like HIV-positive humans, there is almost no chance of passing on the disease through casual, nonaggressive contact.


Rare exchange


There are one or two cases cited that the disease was transmitted without bite wounds or sexual contact involved; I guess there was a cut somewhere on the body of the cat that caused a blood exchange. This is so rare that I wouldn’t even consider it when I had to decide what to do with my own FIV-positive cat in my multicat household.


My wonderful Brutus tested positive for FIV when he was 8 years old. He had been ill, and the vets suspected the virus because of the stomatitis in his mouth. After his diagnosis, Brutus continued to live with his three other neutered companions (who never tested positive, I might add). He did not develop feline AIDS until he was 14 years old.


I never once considered giving Brutus up when I found out he carried FIV, nor did I consider euthanizing a cat who still exuded good health. After all, my brother lived with HIV for many years before he finally succumbed to AIDS. I figured if Brutus lived another couple of years he would reach average age for an older cat at 10. And he was not aggressive, so I never worried about him attacking his companions.


There are three stages of infection to the virus. The acute stage is a three- to six-month period where the cat experiences mild problems (decreased appetite, fever, lethargy), but most cats recover with no treatment and rarely even receive vet care during this stage. The next stage, the subclinical stage, is where they remain clinically healthy, although their immune system continues to go downhill because the virus causes a decline in white blood cell count. This stage can last for many years. The final stage is chronic, where the disease develops and the signs of illness occur.


Once feline AIDS sets in, stomatitis, neurological problems, cancer, anemia urinary tract disease, kidney failure, chronic skin disorders and eye inflammation are all symptoms. At this point, it is only a matter of time before your cat will die. This is the time to set him free — before his life loses its quality.


In earlier stages, most cats respond to symptomatic treatment. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get well, but generally they do quite well with normal treatment. However, you need to remember the viral infection itself cannot be treated.


Experimental drug


A treatment option known as feline interferon is being used in Japan, and there are many clinical trials going on in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, But it is not being offered in the U.S. at this time. There are no licensed antiviral drugs for veterinary use, although there are vets who will try human HIV treatment drugs.


The tests have shown that once AIDS sets in, interferon extends life with good quality for up to a year. But, like its human counterpart, eventually the drugs stop working and the end result is, sadly, death.


While there is a vaccine said to provide reasonable immunity against FIV, there is still controversy surrounding its use. The vaccination develops antibodies against the virus, but if a cat is tested afterward and its vaccination status is unknown, there is no way of knowing if the cat is positive because it carries the disease or because it has been vaccinated against the disease.


I personally do not vaccinate for FIV, but every person needs to make his or her own informed choice with a veterinarian.


I need to stress that you should not give up your FIV-positive cat because of unwarranted fears. Do not hesitate to adopt a healthy cat who tests positive for FIV.


With proper care, FIV-infected cats can live many years and may die because of illnesses common to elderly cats rather than illnesses related to FIV infection. On the other hand, I have seen 6-month-old healthy kittens die unexpectedly. There are no guarantees when it comes to life.


The quality of life is generally very good for FIV positive cats until the end, which is the same for many causes of death. My Brutus lived 14 long years — three years past my vet’s estimate -- and I was thankful for every minute he shared his life with me.


Rene Knapp writes Pet Talk, which appears in The Norwich Bulletin. Reach her at helpingpaws@sbcglobal.net