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Ask the Doctor August 2018 Issue

Dear Doctor: Should I adopt him?

A reader expresses her concerns about adopting an FIV-positive cat

Q. I have been sponsoring a cat at a rescue facility who is FIV-positive (feline immunodeficiency virus). I have two healthy elderly cats (12 and 14 years old). I’ve been told that if I adopt my sponsored cat, my own cats won’t be affected by this disease — unless they receive a deep bite wound. Is this true?

Also, what can I expect as the FIV-positive cat ages, if I assume full care for him? If the worst happens and one of my healthy cats is bitten, how long does it take for the symptoms to manifest? I would like to adopt this cat, but I want to be prepared to do what’s best for him and my other two cats.

Susan Johnson

FIV-infected cats

© Okssi68/Getty Images

With proper care, FIV-infected cats can live many years with a high quality of life. However, itís especially important to keep them strictly indoors.

A. Dear Susan: Yours is an important question. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is part of a family of viruses called lentiviruses and is common worldwide. In the United States, the seroprevalence in cats at a high risk of exposure and in clinically ill cats ranges from four to 24 percent.

In natural settings, transmission of the virus is primarily by inoculation of virus present in saliva or blood presumably from a bite wound. Horizontal transmission of FIV in a multi-cat household is an infrequent event. If transmission does occur in a multi-cat household, it is most likely the result of fighting and bite wounds.

Clinical signs of FIV infection include: fever, dermatitis, stomatitis, weight loss, emaciation, respiratory tract infections, chronic diarrhea, abscesses and even neurological signs. Clinical signs attributed directly to FIV infection likely go unobserved in many cases because they can be mild and explained by other disease processes.

The acute phase of illness may last several days to several weeks, and may just be lethargy or evidence of another type of infection such as an upper respiratory tract infection. After the acute phase, the majority of cats will enter a phase in which they appear healthy. This phase may last for years. During the later stages of infection, clinical signs are often a reflection of opportunistic infections, neoplasia, bone marrow suppression and neurologic disease. Infections with a significant number of opportunistic pathogens such as viral, bacterial, protozoal and fungal have been reported. In the terminal phase of infection, a wasting syndrome may occur.

In many naturally infected cats, FIV does not directly cause a severe clinical disease. With proper care, FIV-infected cats can live many years with a high quality of life, and may die in older age from unrelated causes. It’s important to keep the FIV-infected cat as a strictly indoor cat. Secondary infections cause clinical signs in FIV-infected cats, may influence the clinical course and play a role in the progression of disease.

So, unless there is a lot of fighting, it is not your resident older cats who are at risk. It is the newly adopted FIV-infected cat who may be exposed to pathogens carried by your established cats that may be problematic. For example, if one of your cats were to have chronic herpes virus upper respiratory tract infections, the FIV-infected cat may not be able to fight off infection with this virus.

Plan to introduce the cats gradually so that the risk of fighting is decreased. Make sure that all the cats stay indoors and that you keep your other two healthy cats up to date on vaccinations.

Mary Labato, DVM, DACVIM

Clinical Associate Professor

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

Comments (4)

Thank you, Susan, for being open to bringing in an FIV+ cat. I have known several people who have an FIV+ mixed with FIV-. I did not let them mingle - but for several years I had FeLV+ cats - and none of my other cats ever contracted the disease (they were all vaccinated).

And a *HUGE* thank you for not calling it "Feline AIDS". I have been campaigning against that term since I had the FeLV cats about 25 years ago.

Kudos to all of you!

Posted by: CatWomanDiana | August 27, 2018 4:00 PM    Report this comment

My Ashes, who was 17, died a year ago. He was FIV positive from the day I got him 13 years ago. He lived in a multi cat household and never fought with anyone. Needless to say none of my cats are now FIV positive. He was slowing deteriorating and my vet said "looks like the FIV virus is getting the best of him ".... his RBC was low, marginal kidney damage... even tho I gave sub q fluids daily and vitaminized him... we lost him at age 17. Love him and miss him... along with the others who have gone .....

Posted by: zimmy | August 27, 2018 1:45 PM    Report this comment

God Bless you for being willing to open your home and your heart to FIV infected cats. There aren't enough people who are willing to do that and I commend you for doing it. It takes a special kind of person to shelter homeless animals, even temporarily. Thank you from all of us who want to do it but no longer have the capability to accomplish what our heads and hearts desire!

Posted by: Paula Stone | August 27, 2018 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Please don't be afraid of bringing an FIV+ cat into your home with your other cats. My three FIV+ cats live in harmony with my three "normals", and they get along well and are fundamentally healthy, except for the one who came to my home with significant inflammatory bowel disease, stomatitis, dental decay, and allergies. Management of his medical issues has been the biggest challenge, but I knew that going into the adoption--he had been at the shelter for over a year and was deteriorating. Thanks to my amazing veterinarian, his health has improved tremendously, but I have to be vigilant. The other two FIV+ cats are doing well, although they have arthritis from neglected injuries. If you are adopting a cat that has combo-tested positive for FIV+ and otherwise has no symptoms, I wouldn't worry about it at all. Living in a peaceful and loving home with good food and regular vetting is the best remedy to keep this virus at bay. Good luck!

Posted by: Nittany | August 27, 2018 9:39 AM    Report this comment

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