Paws for Thought – Fixation on FIV

Anthony is a very rare kitty indeed. The male cat is a tortoiseshell—a once in every 3,000 male cat rarity rescued from Manitowaning.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Janice Mitchell is a veterinarian with Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Service.

by Dr. Janice Mitchell

Recently, our very own Expositor brought to light the plight of Anthony, the sweet and most unusual male tortoiseshell currently in foster care under the watch of Fixing our Felines. Not only did Anthony have to be exotic in his combination of his colour markings and his gender, but he happened to be diagnosed with a feline virus called feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV for short. There has been much discussion about this virus, and as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The following article will hopefully clear the muddy waters about this viral infection.

FIV is closely related to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and much of the general information that has become common knowledge for HIV also holds true for FIV. FIV is a virus that causes AIDS in cats; however, there is a long asymptomatic period before AIDS occurs and our job is to prolong this asymptomatic period.

Life expectancy of the FIV+ cat is variable. Approximately 18 percent die within five years of infection. An additional 18 percent are still alive in that time frame but are experiencing illness from their immune-suppressed state. The remaining cats appear normal in that time frame and many go on to live long lives, only periodically experiencing illness. 

Most of the time FIV infection is discovered through a quick blood test performed in the vet’s office or on a blood panel run at the veterinarian’s reference laboratory.  In a household with multiple cats, it is important to test all the cats when one cat comes up FIV+ as it is important to know who is infected and who is not. Cats that test negative should be tested annually as they are at higher risk for infection even though it is generally considered unnecessary to isolate the negative and positive cats from each other.

The major route of virus transmission is by the deep bite wounds that occur during fighting. There are other means of spreading the virus but they are less common. Mother cats cannot readily infect their kittens (except in the initial stages of infection). FIV can be transmitted sexually and via improperly screened blood transfusions. Casual contact such as sharing food bowls or snuggling is very unlikely to be associated with transmission. Isolation of an FIV+ cat is not necessary in a stable household unless the FIV+ cat is likely to fight with the other residents. That said, it is important not to introduce any new cats as this is likely to lead to fighting and consequent virus transmission.

Some lifestyle changes that will be needed if you have an FIV+ cat include the following:

Keep your cat indoors only

Your cat will need to be an indoor cat and not just for the good of the community,

 but also to minimize his exposure to infectious diseases. Cats who are used to living outdoors will make a fuss about being allowed outside. Do not give in. If you just allow the fussing to run its course, it will cease and the cat will get used to the new indoor only life.

No raw foods

There are currently numerous fad diets involving raw foods for pets. Do not succumb to these popular if your cat has FIV. Uncooked foods, meats especially, can include parasites and pathogens that a cat with a normal immune system might be able to handle but an FIV+ cat might not. Stick to the major reputable cat food brands. 

Vaccination

There is some controversy in regard to what is best for vaccinating an FIV+ cat. There is some evidence that vaccinating the FIV+ cat may encourage the virus to activate. If your cat goes outdoors despite the above recommendation, then you should continue to vaccinate your cat as legally required (ie. rabies).  If your cat is indoors only and no other cats in the home go outside, then it is reasonable to forgo vaccination unless they come to be required for boarding. Oh, and by the way, there is no vaccine for FIV.

Parasite control

The last thing an FIV+ cat needs is fleas, worms or mites, especially now that he is going to be an indoor cat. There are numerous effective products on the market for parasite control.

Antioxidants

Oxidative stress is rather a long story and has been implicated in development of cancer, age-related degeneration and other disease states. In short, oxidative stress stems from reactive oxygen compounds that are generated by our metabolism. The oxygen compounds are able to damage DNA unless they are “scavenged” (rendered harmless) by either the natural antioxidant systems of our bodies or by antioxidant supplements we take orally. Oxidative stress has been implicated in the progression of HIV infection in humans and it has been extrapolated that the same is true of FIV infection in cats. While the jury is still out as to how significant a treatment this is likely to become, it is certainly clear that antioxidant supplementation may be beneficial on a number of planes and may be worth a try.

Immune stimulants

Briefly, there is one product available in the Canadian veterinary market that comes to mind. It is aptly called Rx ImmunoSupport and contains Shiitake mushrooms, larch arabinogalactans and lutein. Together these agents aid as antivirals and contain some anticancer properties. Available in chicken and bacon flavor, yummm!

General monitoring

While a non-geriatric FIV cat should have an annual examination, the FIV+ cat should have a check-up twice a year. Annually, a full blood panel and urinalysis is wise. Also, it is important to be vigilant of any changes in the FIV+ cat. Small changes that one might not think would be significant in an FIV+ cat should probably be thoroughly explored in an FIV+ cat. Any weight loss in particular should be addressed.

Finally, FIV is not transmissible to humans in any way.

Now that you are an expert on FIV, perhaps I will really confuse you in the future on feline leukemia (or FeLV, or as I call it, the feline love virus). Or if your brain is yawning right now, how about a debate on calico markings vs tortoise shells? Always good fun! Till next time, here’s hoping Anthony finds his forever home.