Everything you need to know about FIV and FeLV

What do cats say when they get hurt? Me-OW! 

When adopting a cat, new feline guardians will see that animal shelters test kitties for 2 infectious diseases:  Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (or FIV), and Feline Leukemia Virus (or FeLV).  While most cats test negative for both, the Louisiana SPCA is happy that we can offer those who test positive the chance to find loving homes.  Admittedly, the names of these diseases sound scary, but the truth is that cats diagnosed with either can have excellent quality of life; and of course, they still make fantastic pets.

anabelle-ch2_1974FIV

FIV is a viral infection that is essentially the cat version of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (or HIV).  FeLV is also caused by a virus, and is genetically related to FIV.  The most important thing to understand about both FeLV and FIV is that they infect only cats, and neither can be spread to people or other animals.  Both diseases also have similar symptoms:  lethargy (extreme inactivity), loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and inflammation of gums.  Neither FIV nor FeLV has a cure, but both can be managed with supportive care.

FIV is a slow-acting virus that depresses a cat’s immune system, making it harder for the cat to fight off illnesses like upper respiratory infections (kitty colds) and skin infections.  Many FIV positive (FIV+) kitties live long, normal lives without suffering any symptoms.  In those that do get sick, they tend to catch infections like the ones mentioned above more often than healthy cats would.  While it is possible for the disease to progress to acute infection, just like HIV can progress to AIDS in people, this is rare in cats.  Researchers believe that FIV doesn’t reduce a cat’s lifespan:  in fact, the most common cause of death in FIV+ cats is old age and the conditions associated with it (like heart failure and kidney disease).

While there is no vaccine for FIV, it is difficult for cats to transmit to each other.  It is most often spread through deep bite wounds, which themselves mostly happen when intact males fight over mates.  When males are neutered, that type of aggression is eliminated, and consequently the chance that they’ll give FIV to other cats is diminished.   It is safest for FIV positive cats to be the only kitty in the home, or to live with other cats who have the same diagnosis.  However, when there is certainty that none of the cats in the home will show this type of aggression, FIV+ cats can live with healthy cats.

gray kittenFeLV

Like FIV, FeLV reduces the effectiveness of a cat’s immune system, and makes it more susceptible to infectious illnesses.  In addition, FeLV can cause cats to develop certain types of cancers.  The good news is that 65% of cats are naturally immune to FeLV, and VCA Hospitals estimates that 30% of the cats who are infected with FeLV eliminate the virus from their systems without suffering symptoms.  While some cats will not show signs of the disease for months or even many years, the average lifespan of a cat with an active FeLV infection is 2 – 3 years, with kittens under 8 weeks of age being most at risk of having a short lifespan.  It’s heartbreaking to contemplate having such a short time with a beloved pet, but there is a silver lining for potential adopters.  Healthy cats can live more than 20 years, so getting a kitty companion normally means pledging to care for them for several decades.  In circumstances where this time commitment is not possible, adopting a FeLV positive (FeLV+) cat is a wonderful opportunity to give a well-deserving cat a great home.

Because FeLV can be more symptomatic than FIV, kitty guardians might worry that bringing home an FeLV+ cat would require extensive veterinary care resulting in an unmanageable financial burden.  To the contrary, in many cases FeLV+ cats don’t contract lingering illnesses that require long-term medical intervention.  “When the time comes for FeLV+ cats, they usually succumb to disease very quickly,” says Stacy LeBaron, who is the host of the Community Cat Podcast, and has over 20 years’ experience finding placement for FeLV+ cats.  She continues, “FeLV+ cats are not expensive cats to own.  In fact, their medical care is less expensive when compared with other chronic diseases.”  Hard as it is to think about the end of our pets’ lives, there is comfort in knowing that both FeLV+ cats and their guardians are unlikely to endure the prolonged suffering that accompanies many other conditions.

While there is an effective vaccine against FeLV, it’s also much easier to transmit among cats.  In addition to wounds and scratches, it can be spread through close physical contact.  The most common route is via saliva left on fur when kitties groom each other, though in rare cases it can be transmitted via the sharing of food bowls and litterboxes.   In many cases, FeLV+ cats are best off as only cats in indoor homes, although there is growing evidence that they can be housed with FeLV negative cats who have been fully vaccinated and receive regular vaccine boosters.

milo2For both FeLV+ and FIV+ kitties, the most effective way to manage their condition is to make sure they receive good nutrition and experience as little stress as possible.  When we humans are stressed out, we’re more likely to catch colds; and anxiety in cats has the same result.  Because FIV+ and FeLV+ cats have delicate immune systems, keeping them calm is key to maintaining their health.  Veterinarians can recommend additional supportive measures you can utilize, but these two factors are the most important, and the easiest to implement.

Since recent years have brought so much new research about expectations for and management of these diseases, many more rescues are able to find these cats the homes that they desperately deserve.  And while it takes special adopters to commit to the extra care needed, these families receive the dual rewards of having both a marvelous pet and the knowledge that they have helped some of the most vulnerable kitties in shelters.


Sara Dawdy, Feral Cat Intervention Coordinator … AKA the cat whisper