Pet Care Blog

FIV in Cats: Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Dr. Ricky Walther
Orange cat with FIV lying outside

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), also known as “feline AIDS”, is an infectious disease that attacks a cat's immune system. It is a serious health risk for felines as it typically results in reduced immune function which, in turn, can lead to many secondary conditions.

But what exactly does it mean to have an FIV-positive cat? How do cats get FIV and, more importantly, can it be cured?

This post will go over all those answers and more, so you can provide the best possible care for an FIV-positive cat at home.

Table of Contents

Pro Tip: If you’ve recently learned your cat is FIV-positive, the cost of treatment should be the last thing you have to worry about. Most pet insurance plans cover expenses for FIV treatment and can reimburse policyholders for costs paid out-of-pocket — as long as it’s not considered a pre-existing condition. That’s why it’s important to enroll your pets as soon as possible, so that all future health concerns will be covered.

What is FIV in cats?

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is an infection that attacks the immune system of cats, leading to weakened immunity and increased susceptibility to secondary infections and diseases. The virus is degenerative and can progress to feline AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). However, the disease moves slowly, so FIV-positive cats might remain in good health for years before showing symptoms of their condition worsening.

Symptoms of FIV in cats

The most common symptoms of FIV in cats include:

  • Fever
  • Poor coat condition
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Chronic or recurrent infections in the skin, eyes, bladder, or upper respiratory tract
  • Inflammation in the mouth and gums
  • Persistent eye problems such as uveitis and conjunctivitis
  • Abscesses
  • Behavioral changes
  • Enlargement of the lymph nodes
  • Stillbirths or abortions
  • Seizures
  • Leukemia or lymphoma
  • Signs of neurological disorders

Be sure to contact your vet ASAP if your pet displays any of the above clinical signs of cat FIV. After an infected feline first shows symptoms, they might suffer bouts of illness followed by periods of seemingly good health, which can make the signs easy to miss — especially in outdoor cats who receive less observation.

Remember that FIV-positive cats can live for years before their condition deteriorates, so it’s important to monitor your pet’s health with routine vet visits in order to detect the disease early on and reduce the transmission.

How do cats get FIV?

The most common way cats get FIV is through bites. The virus is present in the saliva FIV-positive cats, so it can easily spread to other felines by entering the bloodstream through an open wound.

Outdoor cats are especially vulnerable to the virus as they often enter territorial disputes that result in this type of injury. Due to this display of dominance, male cats are twice as likely to get FIV than females. The virus is most prevalent among middle-aged felines between five and 10 years old.

Two cats fighting

In rare cases, the virus can be transmitted from an infected mother to her kittens during pregnancy, nursing, or birth.

Can FIV cats live with other cats?

FIV is contagious but it doesn’t usually spread by sharing food, eating bowls, beds, or litter boxes, or through other types of contact such as sneezing or social grooming.

It should be noted, however, that even though the risk of transmission through social contact is not very high, it is still possible. For this reason, FIV-positive cats should be separated from healthy ones and they should not be allowed to roam free outdoors.

Can humans get FIV from cats?

No, cats can’t transmit FIV to humans; they can only infect other cats.

FIV test for cats

If you notice potential symptoms of FIV in your pet, be sure to have them examined. (Note: All pregnant cats should be evaluated for FIV, even if they don’t display symptoms, because they can transmit it to their kittens.)

Your vet will likely perform blood and urine tests to look for specific antibodies present in an infected feline’s blood. There are several cat FIV stages that indicate how far the disease has spread; your vet will make a diagnosis based on the examination findings.

Cat FIV Stages

  • Acute phase — This occurs right after infection and lasts for about one to two months. In this stage, some felines will experience lymph node enlargement, fever, and/or lethargy.
  • Latent infection period — This stage can last for months or even years. Most cats won’t show any symptoms and many of them won’t progress beyond this phase.
  • Feline AIDS — In this phase, the cat’s immune system becomes compromised, making them susceptible to secondary infections and diseases.
  • Terminal phase — During the end stage of FIV in cats, the animal will suffer from severe conditions such as neurologic disease, cancer, and other infections.

Treating FIV in cats

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for FIV in cats, but the symptoms can be managed so your pet can maintain a good quality of life. With preventative care and support from your veterinarian, most FIV-positive cats can live happily for many years.

If your cat starts showing symptoms of FIV, the vet will treat the secondary diseases that result from the virus. The most commonly recommended treatments for cats with FIV include medications to help with secondary infections, medications to strengthen the immune system, fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy, medications that help with inflammation, and parasite control.

Note: Some medications used in human patients with HIV, such as AZT and interferons, have shown to help some felines with the virus, but these can be rather expensive. Be sure to only give medications that have been prescribed by a veterinarian.

It’s essential that you stay on top of your cat’s vaccination schedule to reduce the risk of pathogens attacking their weakened immune system. Also, be sure to provide a high-quality diet and avoid raw food that may expose your pet to harmful pathogens.

Additional tips your veterinarian may recommend to care for an FIV-positive cat include:

  • Keeping your pet indoors to protect their immune system and prevent them from spreading the disease to other cats.
  • Spaying females to eliminate the risk of transmission through pregnancy.
  • Neutering males to correct territorial behavior.
  • Scheduling checkups every six months at the vet for blood work and urinalysis.

Cost of treating FIV

The initial cost of cat FIV treatment will cover diagnostic tests, lab work, and examination. While these vet visit costs may fall under a couple hundred dollars, later treatment for FIV can be quite expensive, ranging anywhere from $150 to $2,000 for each secondary health concern that needs to be addressed after the latent infection period. Unfortunately, the compromised immune function resulting from feline AIDS may lead to serious diseases, such as cancer, which can be even more expensive to treat over time.

Pro Tip: To enjoy the full value of pet insurance, it's best to enroll animals while they're young and healthy. However, if your cat has a pre-existing condition, you could still save money with an insurance policy by getting reimbursed for unrelated veterinary services.

Cat with FIV wrapped in blanket

Life expectancy for cats with FIV

FIV cats live an average of five years after the initial diagnosis, but the prognosis can vary based on the stage of the infection and several other variables. For pets who reach the end stage of cat FIV, the life expectancy is about two to three months.

While FIV typically does not result in death itself, it does make the infected animal more susceptible to diseases that can be fatal, especially if the virus has progressed to feline AIDS. Early treatment of FIV can extend an infected cat’s life expectancy, so you can enjoy more time together.

Preventing FIV in cats

You can help prevent your pet from contracting the virus by keeping them indoors to minimize potential contact with infected cats. If you do decide to take your feline friend outside, consider placing them on a leash.

Spaying and neutering your pets is the best way to prevent FIV in cats because it helps reduce the risk of bite wounds during fights. Keep an eye out for intact cats in your area and use extra caution during peak mating seasons. If your cat manages to get out of the house, consider an FIV test just to be safe.

It’s always a good idea to test new pet cats for the virus before incorporating them into your household. Remember to separate any FIV-positive cat from other feline family members in the house.

FIV vaccine for cats

An FIV vaccine can provide some degree of protection and might be useful in felines who are at a greater risk of contracting the virus. However, the vaccine can’t be expected to provide complete protection, and vaccinated cats might test positive on routine antibody tests. Be sure to speak to your vet about the pros and cons of the FIV vaccine.

Key Takeaways

  • FIV is a virus that infects cats compromising their immune system and making them susceptible to infections and secondary diseases (very similar to HIV in humans). FIV usually develops slowly and many infected felines can live for years without showing signs of illness.
  • FIV usually spreads when an infected cat bites another. It can’t be transmitted from cats to humans or other animals.
  • The most common symptoms of FIV include ongoing infections, fever, weight loss, persistent diarrhea, etc.
  • Unfortunately, there’s no cure for FIV but with proper care and veterinary support, many infected cats can have a fairly good quality of life.
  • Neutering/spaying your feline companion is the best way to protect them from FIV.

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Ricky Walther, DVM

Dr. Ricky Walther

Ricky Walther, DVM, is a small animal general practitioner in the greater Sacramento, California area. Realizing the positive financial and medical impact that pet insurance can provide for pet parents and the profession, he lends support and advice to companies like Pawlicy Advisor "The Pet Insurance Marketplace") that simplify the process of connecting with veterinary financing resources.

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