What is feline AIDS / FIV / Feline HIV?
Feline AIDS is a disease that roughly corresponds to AIDS in people. It isn't caused by the same virus, but by FIV, or feline HIV. Technically FIV is preferred (HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, FIV is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). They aren't the same thing, but they do the same thing to the body of the cat - namely, suppressing the immune system. The virus makes it harder for the cat's body to fight off other diseases, often making them get very, very sick from things that normal cats would not get ill from.
How did my cat get it?
Cats contract the feline AIDS virus from other cats. The main way that it can be contracted is through bites that happen as cats fight each other. The saliva gets into the bloodstream, transmitting the virus. Mothers can transmit the virus to their kittens by nursing them. It is possible for FIV to be sexually transmitted, but that is pretty rare. However, during sex male cats often bite the females, and that causes a high risk of transmission. As in people, it could be transmitted by using the same needle on an FIV cat and a cat who doesn't have it. Finally, it is also possible that saliva can transmit FIV through a common water or food bowl - although this is extremely unlikely, it has happened before.
How can an indoor cat get it?
If an indoor cat gets AIDS, the owners are often baffled: how could their cats get AIDS when they have no contact with other cats? Usually this is because they contracted the virus long ago. FIV is dormant for some time - in some cats this period lasts for many years after the initial infection, and the cat will show no signs of illness. Even indoor cats have had SOME contact with other cats: namely, their mother and their littermates. It could also be something the cat picked up at a vet visit or kennel stay. It is pretty rare among cats that live only indoors, however.
Can I get AIDS from my cat?
No. These are not the same virus - cats cannot get AIDS from humans, and humans cannot get AIDS from cats. They are just very similar in how they work and what they do to the body, so we use the same terms to talk about them.
What are the symptoms in cats?
There are no specific symptoms that you can conclusively tell it is FIV from without testing the cat. However, your cat will generally seem to be very sickly. FIV damages the cat's immune system, so it will start getting many other diseases, and those diseases will last longer and be more severe than they would otherwise. Loss of weight, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing - all these, when going on for extended periods, could be feline AIDS. Gum infections are also very common.
How does a vet diagnose it?
They do a blood test that will tell you whether or not your cat has it. It is very easy, and many vets recommend testing once a year, especially for cats that go outdoors frequently.
Is my cat going to die if it has FIV?
Many cats will eventually die from it, but many cats also survive for long periods and live out their natural life spans. FIV is generally not as likely to become "active" and damage the immune system as the human AIDS virus is. There are two basic things you should be doing if you find out your cat has HIV. First of all, you need to ask your vet about a special diet for the cat. There are many nutritional supplements that can help boost the cat's immune system to counteract the virus somewhat. You may have to start getting some more expensive cat food if you want to keep the cat alive for its full lifespan.
Second, you are going to have to be much more on guard as an owner about illnesses. When cats have FIV, vets recommend aggressive treatment for even minor sicknesses. The virus is not what kills the cat - it is other diseases that take advantage of the weakened immune system. Watch closely for signs of illness, and take the cat to the vet immediately if it seems to be coming down with something. Feline respiratory infections can be especially dangerous.
There is no cure for the FIV itself. Your cat will always have it, and will always be at risk. Its health may fluctuate, with periods of relative health and poor periods where the cat is very sick and at risk of death. If your cat has tested positive for FIV but does not yet have any symptoms, you should not panic. Take dietary precautions and just generally be more cautious about the cat's health.
What about the risk of infection to other cats? Do I need to put my FIV-positive cat to sleep?
This is a tough decision. First of all, you need to confine your cat to the house. It should not be allowed to go outside anymore. The cat may fight with others and can infect your neighbor's cats if you let it go outdoors. You should also notify any neighbors who you know have cats that you have seen outside. If your cat has it, chances are it got it from another cat in the community. I'm not telling you to go around accusing your neighbors - feral cats are much more likely as a source. But it is important to warn them that their cat could have it as well and that they need to get them tested.
Second, you need to think about any other cats you have in your house. If your cats are friends with each other and do not fight often, there is a pretty low risk of transmission. The best option in that case is to neuter and spay all the cats (to reduce aggression and sexual activity) and train them to use separate food bowls, water bowls, and litter boxes (a very low risk that doesn't justify euthanizing your FIV positive cat, but it is best not to chance it). If your cats do fight, you should consider trying to find a home for the FIV positive cat instead, as if it is healthy it could live a normal life as someone's pet. You can also look to our page on cat aggression for ideas on how to keep the cat from being as much of a problem.
I would not euthanize an FIV positive cat unless it was already severely ill. FIV alone is not a reason to put the cat to sleep because it does not cause pain to the cat. It just makes the cat more likely to get ill. Since many cats will live with it without getting sick or with it remaining dormant, you do not need to put them to sleep unless the cat has become severely ill from something else as a result of the AIDS.
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