FIV Cat or Feline Aids – Causes, Symptoms, TreatmentFIV is the abbreviation for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, which weakens the cat's immune system. The disease is similar to AIDS in humans (HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Is therefore colloquially referred to as feline aids.
Even if "feline aids" sounds bad and the disease is incurable, it is not a death sentence. With the right treatment, even FIV-infected cats can live long and happy lives.
Dr. med. vet. Katrin Noffke
Dr. med. vet. Noffke has worked as a general veterinarian for more than 11 years. At felmo she has been the first mobile vet in Berlin. It also organizes Vet Support to assist other felmo vets.
1. Definition: What is FIV?
The Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is the causative agent of the Feline Immunodeficiency Syndrome. It attacks the cells of the immune system, making the body of a sick cat unable to properly protect itself against disease. Cats infected with FIV are therefore more likely to have other diseases (so called. Secondary diseases) than healthy cats. These secondary diseases include tumors, respiratory diseases, skin diseases and eye diseases.
Although the disease is similar to AIDS in its course and effects, people cannot become infected with FIV.
2. The most important facts about FIV at a glance: FAQ about feline aids
Infection with FIV weakens the immune system of the cat. This makes them more susceptible to tumors and other diseases, which can also shorten the life expectancy of the cat. However, a good therapy enables many cats to live a long and good life, even if FIV is unfortunately not curable. As a pet owner you can z. B. Support your cat's immune system through proper nutrition.
Symptoms are very unspecific; most signs of disease are caused by secondary infections. To diagnose a cat infected with FIV, a blood test must be performed that detects antibodies to the feline immunodeficiency virus. Our veterinarians recommend testing cats for FIV once a year, especially outdoor cats.
No. FIV only affects cats. Humans or other pets like dogs or small animals are therefore not at risk.
FIV is unfortunately not curable. However, the diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence. If you pay attention to a few things, your cat can still live a happy and long life.
There are no clear symptoms that indicate FIV. However, the immune system of an FIV-positive cat is weakened, and secondary diseases can occur over time. These secondary diseases cause symptoms, of course, z. B. (chronic) nasal discharge, (chronic) gingivitis or reddening of the skin due to fungal infections.
Poorly healing wounds or a thinned, unkempt coat as well as weight loss can also be signs of FIV. If you feel that your cat is not well, you should call a veterinarian in any case.
If possible, try not to keep healthy and FIV-infected cats together. However, transmission is thought to occur primarily through bite wounds. If you have more than one cat and they all get along well, the risk of transmission is low. However, an infection cannot be prevented with certainty. If you have a healthy cat, you should not necessarily bring an FIV-positive cat into your household. The opposite is also true: If your cat is infected with FIV, you should not get a healthy second cat. In both cases, the healthy cat would be exposed to unnecessary risk.
The Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is transmitted from cat to cat. An infected cat is contagious throughout its life. Excretes FIV primarily with their saliva.
A healthy cat becomes infected with the virus when the pathogen enters its bloodstream. Most cats appear to become infected with FIV through bites, z. B. during territorial fights.
3. FIV: spread and effect
FIV occurs worldwide, but its spread varies from region to region. General estimates ame that about 11% of all domestic cats are carriers of the virus. In Germany, however, only about 3% of cats are infected. Overall, the north of Germany is more affected than the south.
In addition to domestic cats, other feline species can also become infected with the feline immunodeficiency virus, such as large cats like lions or cougars.
FIV belongs to the group of Lentiviruses. Typical for these viruses is that they cause very slowly progressive, chronic degenerative diseases. The virus attacks mainly the white blood cells (leukocytes) of the cat. Affected are z. B. the lymphocytes that recognize foreign substances. When the immune cells stop working, the cat becomes very susceptible to other pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. However, the destruction of the immune system occurs very slowly. Therefore, only with the progression of the disease, the immunodeficiency occurs.
4. Transmission: How does infection with feline aids occur?? FIV can be found in saliva. blood of the cats can be detected. Therefore, the main transmission is probably through bites, z. B. in territorial fights. Transmission from cats to their kittens in the womb or later through the mother's milk is extremely unlikely. Other body fluids are also potentially infectious, but in practice do not play a role in infection.
Most often infected are outdoor cats, which find many conspecifics in their area. Males are particularly often affected: about ¾ of all FIV-positive cats are male. This can be explained by aggressive territorial behavior, especially in unneutered animals. The strongest risk group are therefore un-neutered, free-roaming male cats.
Unneutered female outdoor cats also have a certain risk of infection, because during mating there is often a neck bite, through which FIV can also be transmitted. A purely indoor cat, neutered or not, is hardly at risk.
An infection with FIV is possible only among cats. Dogs or other animal species cannot become infected. Outside of cat bodies, the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is able to survive for a few seconds to minutes. In addition, it can be rendered harmless by common antiviral disinfectants.
5. Symptoms: How does an infection with FIV manifest itself in cats?
For an infection with FIV there are no specific symptoms. Most signs of illness are due to secondary diseases, to which the weakened immune system of an FIV-positive cat is more susceptible. However, several signs during the course of an illness may raise suspicion of feline aids. Clearly visible symptoms usually appear only in the third stage of the disease, which makes early detection of FIV difficult.
5.1 Course of the disease
After a cat is infected with the virus, an incubation period of three to six weeks follows. The outbreak of the disease does not occur until after this time, and the first clinical symptoms may also not appear until after this time; tests show the disease at the earliest four weeks after infection. The course of feline aids is divided into four stages.
The first phase of the disease lasts about four months. The cat begins to produce virus-specific antibodies immediately after the outbreak. Despite this strong immune response, however, the infection cannot be completely overcome.
In this phase, mild symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and Diarrhea in the cat Show. Often, however, the owners do not notice anything.
Asymptomatic carrier phase
The cat recovers quickly from the acute phase and the disease seemingly comes to a halt – one reason why many owners do not worry even if they observed mild signs of illness during the acute phase.
The cat is now a carrier, but shows no symptoms. Only in a blood count. With a FIV test the disease shows up. The phase can last from months to years; on average, estimates for Central Europe put it at around four years.
Non-specific (AIDS-like) phase
In this phase one can speak of cat aids having broken out, symptoms become visible. In the course of time, the defenses of the cat weaken more and more, so that various secondary diseases can occur. These include infections of the respiratory tract, digestive tract, oral cavity or tumor diseases. Symptoms, which can be assigned clearly to an infection with FIV, are not to be recognized.
Nevertheless, typical signs of illness can appear: Gum inflammation, injuries in the mouth, on the skin and in the eyes are common in FIV-positive cats. In addition, the coat looks unkempt and fever may occur, wounds heal much worse and many cats visibly lose weight. Neurological symptoms such as motor disorders, lameness or ataxia may also occur, as well as sudden aggression or dementia.
This stage can last from a few months to several years.
In the final stage, the immune system collapses. By this time the cat is already suffering from various secondary diseases and continues to decline in weight. The remaining life expectancy is usually less than a year. Strictly speaking, however, animals do not die from FIV, but from one of the secondary infections or severe weight loss.
6. Suspicion of cat aids: When to go to the vet?
Because FIV does not cause clearly recognizable symptoms and the disease can "lie dormant" for a long time, many cat owners do not go to the vet until the third or even fourth stage. At the latest with these signs you should present your cat to a veterinarian:
Your cat is sick more and more often
Even superficial wounds take a long time to heal
Your velvet paw visibly decreases
The cat makes a bad overall impression, looks sick and unkempt
Inexplicable lameness or motor disorders occur
Her behavior changes noticeably, she shows unusual aggression or signs of dementia
The alarm signals do not all have to occur; even one of them is enough to seek professional advice. It does not always have to be feline aids, but a test should be done in any case.
The prognosis for feline aids, as with many other diseases, is better the earlier the disease is detected. If your cat is an outdoor cat, you should have it tested for FIV once a year. Especially if you notice injuries that could be caused by bites, a test is recommended after four weeks at the earliest. The bite wounds themselves may heal quickly, but the infection can go undetected for years without testing.
7. Diagnosis: How to detect an infection with FIV in cats?
For the diagnosis of FIV different test procedures are available. Many veterinarians use a rapid test first. If the test is positive, however, the result must be confirmed by a further examination. The advantage of a rapid test is that it can be performed immediately and provides a result within a short time.
More reliable, however, are a PCR or a Western blot test. For both procedures, the blood sample must be sent to a laboratory. So it can take a few days until the result is available, but with these tests you have definite certainty.
For all test procedures a blood sample is necessary. Since many FIV-positive cats are only brought to the vet when the immune system is noticeably weakened by the onset of the third phase of the disease, the unclear symptoms must be clarified. A detailed blood examination belongs then anyway to it. It saves your cat the stress of another visit to the vet, if in the course of this examination also blood is taken for a FIV test.
If you have your outdoor cat routinely tested for FIV without any specific suspicion, a rapid test may be sufficient. Talk to your veterinarian about which method he thinks is appropriate in your case.
8. Treatment: How can a cat with FIV be helped??
There are some possibilities to give your FIV-positive cat a long and symptom-free or at least a symptom-free life.
8.1 – Medical support: What the vet can do for feline aids
A cat infected with FIV should always be treated by a veterinarian. The immune system of the animal is defenceless against the virus without support, the disease progresses faster and faster.
Although there is unfortunately no cure for feline aids, good therapy can allow infected velvet paws to live a life that need not be significantly shorter than that of their healthy counterparts. The therapy pursues three goals:
Strengthening the immune system
Slow down the multiplication of the virus (with antiviral drugs)
treat secondary diseases that occur
FIV infection in your cat is also an important factor in other medical decisions. Certain medications, z. B. Cortisone, should be avoided if possible. You should also talk to your vet about vaccinations in individual cases: If the immune system of your tiger is already weakened by the virus, it can be overstrained by a vaccination. Therefore, it is important to carefully weigh the benefits against the risks.
By the way, the administration of certain immune-stimulating drugs is controversial in cases of feline aids. Although this can strengthen the immune system, it is also possible that through a multiplication or. Activation of the immune cells also increases the number of viruses that have infected these cells. So please talk to your vet before you give your cat such a medicine!
8.2 – What you can do yourself in case of feline aids
If you find out that your cat is infected with FIV, you should keep it indoors only. This may be difficult for you and your cat at first, but it is important for two reasons: Firstly, there is a risk of infection for other cats if there are bites. Secondly, an infected animal's immune system becomes weaker and weaker, making it more susceptible to the multitude of pathogens outside.
The risk of infection is low for cats living together in the same household, as long as there are no biting or rank fights. Good hygiene, especially at common feeding and lying places, can additionally reduce the danger.
For cats with weakened immune system a good nutrition is very important. The need for minerals. Vitamins should always be covered. High-quality wet food without carbohydrates with food-quality meat is often better digestible than food with a high proportion of offal or dry food. The better the food can be digested, the less it stresses the intestine and thus the immune system. If in doubt, talk to your vet about what to look for in your FIV-positive cat's diet.
Stress also has a negative effect on the immune system. So make sure your cat gets enough rest and retreats, and give him the attention he needs to be relaxed and balanced.
9. Prevention: can you prevent feline aids?
In Europe there is no vaccination against cat aids. The vaccine approved in the USA does not seem to be as effective as hoped so far. For prevention, other measures must therefore be taken.
The most effective way is not to let your cat outside. For apartment cats, the risk of infection is almost non-existent. A small risk may exist for house pets that live together with an infected conspecific.
To prevent the free access completely, however, is a very strong restriction and often also not necessary. Those who can, should think about secured outdoor access in the garden to exclude contact with infected cats as much as possible. There is an increased risk in areas with a high density of free roamers.
Very effective is also the castration of the cat. This is advisable for outdoor cats anyway, to avoid cat suffering due to uncontrolled reproduction. But bloody turf wars are also much more common in unneutered cats than neutered cats and are the biggest risk factor for FIV infection. Neutering is not only a useful preventive measure for male cats: Unneutered cats also have a higher risk of infection than neutered ones due to the neck bite during mating.
10. Conclusion about feline aids
The FIV virus is transmitted through blood and saliva, usually through bites. The virus is contagious only for cats. Unfortunately, there is no vaccination against feline aids in Europe. However, a positive test is not a death sentence and a nice and long life with appropriate therapy well possible. Neutering the cat and controlled outdoor access are effective preventative measures.