Pet Connection: Feline immunodeficiency virus on the rise

Last month, the folks at Banfield Pet Hospital, who care for more than 2.7 million pets nationwide, including 470,000 cats, released their 2014 State of Pet Health report. It included a startling statistic: a 48 percent increase in the prevalence of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection in cats seen at Banfield’s more than 850 hospitals.

Does it mean your cat is at risk? Not necessarily.

A lot depends on his lifestyle. Cats can get FIV through contact with saliva from an infected cat. Cats with the disease typically acquire it through bite wounds when they get in fights with FIV-infected cats. That’s a really good reason to keep your cat indoors. We don’t know what’s behind the increased incidence in FIV infection. It’s not explained by changes in the rates of testing or of vaccination.

What is known from the report is that male cats are three times as likely to be infected with FIV as female cats, and that adult, unneutered cats were 3.5 times more likely to be infected with FIV as adult cats who were spayed or neutered. That makes sense, because unneutered tomcats are the ones who are going to be out there fighting and biting.

Interestingly, a recent study found no evidence that FIV-positive cats living peacefully with disease-free cats passed on the disease. In the same study, FIV-positive mothers did not pass on the disease to their kittens. So while the possibility of transmission is there, simple exposure to an infected cat may not be as risky as previously thought – as long as the cats are friendly toward each other.

There are a couple of important things to know about FIV. First, while FIV is contagious among cats, it’s not transmissible to humans. Also, it’s not curable, but with good care, cats with FIV infections can live long, healthy lives. FIV affects the immune system, so cats with the disease can be more prone to respiratory, dental, eye or skin infections.

Cats with FIV may develop a fever or seem tired all the time. Chronic diarrhea and weight loss are also associated with FIV. Some cats don’t show any signs, although they are still infectious. Protect an FIV-infected cat from injuries or wounds that could cause secondary bacterial infections as well as from other viruses and parasites that could cause illness.

Depending on your cat’s lifestyle, environment and clinical signs, your veterinarian may recommend other measures as well to manage the disease. The most important safety measure you can take is to keep your cat indoors – both to prevent exposure to potential injuries and infections and to make sure he doesn’t spread the disease to other cats.

A vaccination is available for FIV, but it is not among the core vaccines recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. That’s because it doesn’t protect against all the strains of FIV and because the FIV test cannot distinguish between the actual disease and the antibodies produced by vaccination. That can make test results unclear if a cat’s vaccination history is unknown.

The AAFP recommends the vaccine only for cats who are at high risk of infection – in other words, cats who go outdoors. Those cats should have a microchip indicating that they’ve had the vaccination to prevent any confusion about their infection status. Your veterinarian may suggest testing your cat for FIV if she has a fever, frequent infections or other signs of illness. A simple and accurate blood test gives rapid results.