Understanding FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) and How it Affects Your Cat

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, more commonly known as FIV, is what is known as a retrovirus. When retroviruses invade a host, they replicate inside the host by using an enzyme called "reverse transcriptase". The process is to use its own RNA as a template to create new DNA within cells of the host. In this way they evade the host body's natural immune defense mechanisms while they make new copies of themselves. The virus then attacks the host's immune response cells (antibodies) causing a reaction in the host's body, in this case your cat, to produce elevated levels of antibodies. It becomes virtually a war waged within your cat's body. With increasing destruction of antibodies, the host's body then becomes vulnerable to other diseases and infections that it normally would find easy to fend off. The FIV virus and the HIV virus which causes AIDS in humans work in very similar ways.

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Pictures_Cat_first_aid.jpgHow is FIV Transmitted?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is fragile. It can be inactivated or destroyed with ultraviolet light, exposure to high temperatures, drying of the liquid medium it's transmitted in, or when subjected to detergents. Since these things can also be harmful to your cat, this weakness can be only exploited when the virus is outside of her during the transmission stage of the virus from one cat to another. Basically, this means that keeping your cat's environment clean can help reduce transmission of the disease.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is most commonly transmitted through bodily fluids, i.e. saliva or blood. Male cats are more susceptible to FIV than females since they tend to fight more often. The first line of defense against this disease is to neuter your cat to reduce the instincts for territorial or sexually aggressive behavior. Limiting your cat's contact with stray or feral cats will also reduce the incidence of FIV infection. If your kitty comes home with fresh wounds, clean them immediately. It may not be sure prevention, but any and all efforts can only be helpful to prevent the infection of your favorite kitty.

The transmission of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus from a mother cat to her kittens is very rare. If it does occur, it'll usually happen when the mother is infected during lactation or gestation. Generally speaking, Queens infected before pregnancy do not have infected kittens. And, good mothers don't leave bite wounds on their kittens.

One other thing about retroviruses... they are species specific. FIV occurs only in cats (including the big wild cats, i.e. lions, snow leopards, etc.), just like HIV only occurs in humans; though it is a derivative of a primate virus occurring in chimpanzees. Which leads me to think that we shouldn't be surprised if the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus should mutate and invade species which share genetic, physiological, environmental and/or other similarities with cats.

FIV Has 3 Stages of Development

pictures_feral_cats.jpg* The first stage of the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus infection is called the "acute" stage and is characterized by fevers, susceptibilities to skin & intestinal infections, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms usually occur 4-6 weeks after infection. At this time there may be elevated levels of your cat's antibodies present.

* The second stage is called the "latent", more formally the subclinical stage, and there're no signs of the disease. This stage may last for years, but during this period the immune system is slowly being destroyed.

* The third stage is the final, AIDS-like stage when the immunodeficiency becomes severe. It occurs most commonly in cats 5-12 years of age. In this clinical stage the cat's immune system isn't operating properly and she is prone to infections that under normal circumstances her body would easily ward off. But since her immune system cannot keep these infections under control, they multiply rapidly causing disease. Infections such as these are called "opportunistic infections".

Clinical Symptoms of FIV

Infected cats will show non-specific symptoms such as fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss and swollen lymph nodes. In addition symptoms of FIV and FeLV (Feline Leukemia) are very similar. Additionally, other signs of the infection can occur:

* Oral Infections such as gingivitis, mouth pain and refusing to eat.

* Eye Diseases, redness, discharges, cloudiness or even glaucoma.

* Gastrointestinal signs such as chronic diarrhea, bacterial or parasitic infestation.

* Upper Respiratory Disease with sneezing & nasal discharge, breathing difficulties or coughing.

* Skin & Ear Infections which are chronic. Ear mites, ringworm, mange, itching and hair loss.

* Neurologic Diseases which can cause changes in behavior, loss of house-training habits, and dementia.

* Anemia

* When the immune system is depressed lymphoma and leukemia are always a dangerous possibility.

The above symptoms are not the final test for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus since they can indicate the presence of any number of infections and diseases. If your kitty displays any of these signs she should be taken to your veterinarian and given specific tests based on the doctors analysis of her condition. Most chemistry tests show cats with FIV to be normal. But, these tests might indicate anemia and decreased numbers of white blood cells in ill cats. Also, a protein called globulin may be elevated in FIV infected cats.

Testing For FIV

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus infection is diagnosed with tests which detect a cat's antibody production against FIV. Remember, antibodies are usually present 3-6 weeks after infection. But, it takes 8-12 weeks for detectable levels of antibodies to appear. Keep in mind the scuffle that Beauregard got into with that strange Tom... which, by the way, you never saw again. Therefore, testing should be performed 8-12 weeks after the suspected infection occurs. If the infection occurrence timeline is unknown, kitty should be tested once, then again in 8-12 weeks. Tests can prove problematic since the occurrences of false and false positive tests is quite common. It usually takes a series of tests to reach a sure and accurate conclusion.

FIV Treatment

At this time there is no cure for FIV. If your cat is infected with the disease, she should be kept indoors to prevent secondary infections and to keep her from infecting other cats. Your veterinarian will use aggressive treatments of any infections she acquires as a result of her lowered immune system. Antibiotics for secondary infections, a good diet with adequate fluids will help your cat enjoy a quality filled life, and in the case of FIV, a sometimes long life. Remember, FIV can remain dormant for years.

Article by Robert Gallegos who is a life long lover of cats. He is dedicated to sharing his understanding of the cat experience, reducing the epidemic feral cat situation, and helping cat lovers to provide the best care for their cats.

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Melody Stanlin said:

I'd like to thank you for discussing this important topic, and I'd also like to contribute to the discussion.

My own cat was gravely ill and diagnosed with FIV, and my vet assured me there were NO treatment options. I'm glad I didn't listen to him. I connected with Thomas Hapka of felineaids.org and discovered that many holistic practitioners are employing natural strategies to help cats with FIV, and the results are extremely encouraging.

My own FIV+ cat made a dramatic recovery and he's still with me... going on five years now.

I would recommend "Feline AIDS: A Pet Owner's Guide" to anyone with an FIV+ cat, and I encourage pet owners to do their research before putting a cherished pet to sleep.

Jack said:

This post is really a good one in respect of health issues and general awareness. thanks for the information

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