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Norwich Bulletin - 5/10/2009

FIV

Meet Garfield! He has had a hard life as you can tell by the frost bite on his ears. Left on his own as a youngster, he was picked on in a feral cat colony. He is young, handsome, loves people and children. He isnít good with other cats, probably because he was beat up so much as a kitten. So why hasnít he been adopted? Because he is FIV positive. There is such a fear and stigma when it comes to FIV cats. Many end up living out their lives in a cage in a shelter --- others are needlessly euthanized way before their time. I always told my HIV positive brother that he was very lucky he was not born a cat!

In 1986, a cat appeared with clinical symptoms that were strikingly similar to those seen in humans with AIDS. He was found to have a feline immunodeficiency virus that became known as FIV. Like HIV positive humans, the disease is acquired through blood or sexual contact.

Aggressive whole male cats who are territorial and have a propensity for fighting are at a higher risk to both acquire and pass on FIV. Those same whole males can pass on the virus through sexual contact with females, not only to the female but also to the unborn kittens. But, like HIV positive humans, there is almost no chance of passing on the disease through casual, non-aggressive contact.

While there are the horror stories about one or two cases cited that the disease was transmitted without bite wounds or sexual contact involved; I would venture to guess that there was a cut somewhere on the body of the cat that caused a blood exchange. This is so rare that I would not even consider it when I had to decide what to do with my own FIV positive cat in my multi cat household.

My wonderful Brutus tested positive for the FIV virus when he was 8 years old. He had been ill and because of the stomatitis in his mouth, my vets were suspect. After his diagnosis, Brutus continued to live with his three other neutered companions (who never tested positive, I might add). He did not develop Feline Aids until he was fourteen years old. I never once considered giving Brutus up when I found out he carried FIV, nor did I consider euthanizing a cat who still exuded good health. After all, my brother lived with HIV for many years before he finally succumbed to AIDS. I figured if Brutus lived even another couple of years he would ten years old, which is the average age for an older cat. And he was so non aggressive I never worried about him attacking his companions.

There are three stages of infection to this disease, the first being the acute stage. This is a three to six month period where the cat experiences mild diseases(decreased appetite, fever, lethargy) but most cats recover with no treatment and rarely even receive vet care during this stage. The next stage, the subclinical stage, is where they remain clinically healthy, although their immune system continues to go downhill, as the virus causes a decline in the white blood cell count. This stage can last for many years. And last, of course, is the chronic stage where the disease develops and the signs of illness occur.

Once Feline Aids actually sets in, stomatitis, nueroligal problems, cancer, anemia urinary tract disease, kidney failure, chronic skin disorders and eye inflammations are all symptoms of the chronic stages of FIV infection. At this point, it is only a matter of time before your cat will leave you. This is the time to set him free Ė before his life loses its quality.

In the earlier stages, most cats respond to the symptomatic treatment of whatever problems they are experiencing, just like uninfected cats do. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get well, but generally they do quite well with normal treatment. However, you need to remember that the viral infection itself cannot be treated.

While feline interferon is being used in Japan and there are many clinical trials going on in the United Kingdom as well as the Netherlands, it is not being offered in the United States at this time. There are no antiviral drugs that are licensed for veterinary use, although, there are vets who will try human HIV treatment drugs. The tests have shown that once Aids sets in, the interferon extends life with good quality for up to a year. But, like its human counterpart, eventually the drugs stop working and the end result is, sadly, death.

The FIV test is relatively simple and inexpensive. Cats should be tested by organizations before they are offered up for adoption, people adopting cats and kittens from the general public should ask for proof of testing, or plan on taking their new pet to the vet themselves. Also keep in mind that there are many false positive tests as well as false negatives so nothing is actually 100% sure, even if you do test.

While there is a vaccine that is said to provide reasonable immunity against FIV, there is still a lot of controversy surrounding its use. The vaccination develops antibodies against the virus. Therefore if a cat is tested afterwards and its vaccination status is unknown, there is no way of knowing if the cat is positive because it carries the disease or because it has been vaccinated against the disease. I personally do not vaccinate for FIV Ė but every person needs to make their own informed choice with their veterinarian.

I need to stress that you do not give up your FIV positive cat because of unwarranted fears and do not hesitate to adopt a healthy cat who tests positive for FIV. With proper care, FIV infected cats can live many years and may in fact, die due to illness that is common to elderly cats rather than illnesses related to their FIV infection. On the other hand, I have seen six month old healthy kittens die unexpectedly. There are no guarantees when it comes to life.

The quality of life is generally very good for FIV positive cats until the end, which is the same for many causes of death. My Brutus lived fourteen long years Ė three years passed my vetís estimate and I was thankful for every minute he shared his life with me.

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