Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), like feline leukaemia (FeLV), is caused by a retrovirus. This is similar to the virus that causes human AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). These viruses are species specific which means the virus that affects cats won't infect humans and vice versa.
FIV and FeLV are similar in many respects. Both depress and progressively disable the immune system leaving the cat with a reduced ability to fight off infection. This often leads to secondary infections and tumours. Some of these secondary infections can be contagious but others are not. A cat can contract both FIV and FeLV.
FIV is spread through saliva from an infected cat entering the blood stream of another cat. This most commonly occurs during cat fights. Obviously cats with the highest risk of contracting the disease are unneutered cats which are allowed out of doors.
The symptoms of FIV are wide ranging and can be vague and non-specific. Symptoms may not be apparent for perhaps ten years after contracting the disease.
Upper respiratory infections are the most common and can be chronic. These are also likely to be contagious. There may be weight loss due to chronic diarrhoea, inflammation of the mouth and gums, nervous system problems, fever, chronic abscesses, dermatitis, swollen lymph glands and urinary tract infections. Younger cats can contract the disease but go into remission and live a full life.
Cat with FIV is 7 to 8 times more likely to develop cancers. The most common cancer is lymphoma or cancer of the lymph nodes.
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Before testing for FIV, your vet will consider the cat's history and any signs of illness. If he thinks a diagnosis of FIV is likely, he will suggest having a blood test taken.
There is no treatment for FIV. Cats differ in their response to the disease. Some will immediately fall ill with any one of a number of infections while others will live long and seemingly healthy lives.
Fel-O-Vax from Wyeth can be used to vaccinate against FIV. Your veterinarian will be able to help you with advice. Normally the cat is tested for FIV. Three shots are administered at fortnightly intervals followed by booster shots every twelve months.
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FIV is not a mandatory death sentence. Although there is no cure, many infected cats live long and happy lives and may never show any symptoms at all. Others will develop symptoms as they age. Care should be aimed to minimising exposure to infections and supporting your cat when he becomes ill to the point of euthanasia when he fails to respond to treatement.
Always tell your vet if you know your cat has FIV. Having this knowledge will help your vet choose appropriate medications and treatments for your cat. An infected cat should be isolated from healthy cats. This should include keeping your cat indoors. Keeping your cat confined will also lessen the risk of him picking up infections which his weakened immune system may find difficult to fight.
Good husbandry will include providing a balanced, nutritious diet and as far as possible a stress-free environment. Prompt attention to any infections or health problems will also help.