Ask the Vet: The truth about feline immunodeficiency virus

Dr. Ray Cahill

Q: I heard cats can get AIDS. Is this true?

— Mike, Massachusetts

A: The term AIDS (an acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome) describes the medical condition in humans that results from infection with the HIV virus. Cats cannot get HIV. However, cats can get FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), and sometimes this is loosely referred to as “AIDS” in cats.

FIV gets transmitted between cats, usually from deep cat bites or by passing from mother to kitten. When a cat has FIV, the ideal recommendation is to keep it as an indoor pet to help reduce the risk of passing it to other cats. If there are other cats in the household already, it is not guaranteed that they will get infected with FIV, too. It is quite possible that an indoor FIV positive cat can live with other cats and not pass the virus along.

The FIV virus weakens a cat’s immune system and predisposes the cat to picking up viral, bacterial and fungal infections. It also predisposes the cat to developing the cancer called lymphoma. Because cats with FIV may have a more difficult time fighting off infection, any people living in the home who also have a compromised immune system should discuss potential risks with their physician.

If your cat has FIV, your veterinarian may recommend more frequent routine wellness exams. FIV cannot be cured, but there are a few products on the market that may offer antioxidant benefits or potentially act as immune stimulants.

Cats can live a very long, happy life with FIV infection. Ask your vet if you have any questions or would like to know more about the disease.

Dr. Ray Cahill owns and operates SeaPort Veterinary Hospital in Gloucester, Mass. Submit questions via e-mail on the contact page of the hospital's website,