Just like HIV in humans, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a silent killer. The virus cannot be passed to humans but just like HIV it’s carried in bodily fluids, so cats need only share a food bowl or get bitten in a fight to become infected.

Willow’s Story

Willow As a KittenCredit: S.A.Sheppard

I first heard of FIV in January 2011, when the disease took my Willow from me. Willow was a feisty cat who loved to roam and would fight any cat that crossed her path. She’d been born on a rug in my living room in 2002 after her mother’s owners went away for the weekend, leaving their heavily pregnant pet in their garden. Willow was the fourth and last kitten to be born, the runt of the litter.  I loved her the first moment I saw her - a tiny grey and white bundle of fur. Her brother and sisters were all black; she was different right from the start.

Willow loved nothing more than being outside. In 2006 she came home one night with a nasty bite to the scruff of her neck; she often came home with war wounds. By the next morning it had turned into an abscess-like lump, so we took her to the vet. Her wound was drained, cleaned and she was given anti-biotics. She soon healed and we thought no more of it.

WillowCredit: S.A.Sheppard

In late 2009 I noticed she wasn’t looking as healthy as usual. The vet said she had infected gums and that this was a hereditary condition. She had several teeth removed and appeared happier for a little while.

In 2010 she began urinating in random places around the house and even when she went to her litter tray she would stand in it and urinate over the edge, rather than in it. Nothing I tried resolved the problem. She’d also begun to drool and occasionally her pink nose would look dirty; when I queried this it was put down to the fact she was an older cat with missing teeth.

By Christmas of that year, Willow began to look really poorly. One morning, she came to me for a cuddle and then urinated in my lap; I knew then something was really very wrong. I decided to try a different vet, for a second opinion.

The vet took one look at her and told me it wasn’t good news. A blood sample showed her blood was very thin, it looked more like water, and a simple test confirmed the worst: Willow had FIV and only days to live. My heart broke.

The vet told me that Willow could have contracted the virus some years previously, as it is slow-acting and often takes several years to reach the chronic stage. It weakens the immune system, so just like HIV, sufferers are susceptible to secondary infections. It was only with hindsight that her symptoms were glaringly obvious:  her grubby nose, dishevelled coat, gum infections and strange urination patterns were all symptoms of FIV.

FIV-Infected WillowCredit: S.A.Sheppard

Because her sister, Missy, often ate food Willow had left behind, she had to be tested for FIV too. I was told as they hadn’t been biting each other the chances were small. Sadly, Missy also tested positive for the virus. We have to keep her indoors, watch her diet and she takes immune-enhancing drugs but over two years on and she’s still the picture of health; even with FIV she could still enjoy many healthy happy years to come.

Initially I blamed myself for what happened to Willow but ultimately, once she’d been bitten there was nothing anyone could do to stop the transmission of the infection and there’s no vaccination against FIV. Maybe if I’d changed vets sooner she’d have been tested earlier and therefore had more time but this is a big IF. What I can do, however, is try my best to ensure cat owners know what to look out for; please share this information – it may save a cat’s life.

FIV Fact File:

  • FIV is spread cat-to-cat, including mother to kitten, though bodily fluids.
  • It can affect any cat at any time, though those that fight and roam are most likely to be exposed to the virus.
  • There is no vaccination for FIV.
  • FIV cannot be transmitted to humans.
  • It is diagnosed by a simple blood test. If you suspect your cat might have FIV keep it indoors and away from other cats until it has been tested.
  • It can only be prevented by preventing your cat from having any contact with other cats.
  • FIV is treated by maintaining an infected cat’s good health. The cat should be kept indoors and away from other cats. They should be fed a healthy and nutritious diet and have regular check-ups. Your vet may prescribe medication to boost their immune system or reduce inflammation.

Symptoms of FIV:

Monitor your cat for any physical or behavioural changes.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) list recognised FIV symptoms[1] as:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Disheveled coat
  • Poor appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Abnormal appearance or inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
  • Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis)
  • Inflammation of the mouth (stomatitis)
  • Dental disease
  • Skin redness or hair loss
  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Frequent urination, straining to urinate or urinating outside of litter box
  • Behavior change

Cat Health: FIV