What’s feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)?

What’s feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)?

Advice and tips for cat owners

Australia is a nation of kitty cat lovers with an estimated 4.9 million pet cats in households[1]. It’s certainly proof that we sure do love our purring friends!

But with this high ownership of cats sadly comes risk. More than eight in 10 (83%)[2] of cats in households have some form of outdoor access – and this can also mean socialisation with other cats. Socialisation can mean cat fights and bites, which is where the risk of contracting feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) comes in.

FIV transmission is through bite wounds from an infected cat. It can cause serious and potentially fatal disease in cats by depressing their immune system, which may predispose them to chronic and recurrent infections of various types.

Signs of feline immunodeficiency virus are linked to the initial infection or longer term are linked to immune suppression and include chronic inflammatory conditions, such as gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums), secondary infections or the development of certain neoplasias (cancers).

Australia has one of the highest rates of FIV compared to other parts of the world. This is possibly because many owners permit cats to live outdoors and populations of feral cats persist in many locations. More than one in seven (15%) pet cats in Australia with outdoor access have tested positive for FIV[3].

Keeping your cat 100% indoors can help prevent FIV

FIV can affect anyone with a kitten or cat with outdoor access but a cat with FIV can be managed so it’s important to be aware of the risks, but also to be aware of prevention, too.

Many of us have the intent when deciding to get a kitten or cat to keep it indoors but we know that circumstances can change. One third (39%) of cat owners who initially intended on their cat being exclusively indoors later changed their mind[4] . We know it’s hard to keep some kitties inside, particularly living in such a beautiful climate in Australia!

Sadly, however, once a cat has been infected with FIV, there is no cure, but careful management can greatly enhance their quality of life. To help cat owners understand the risks and management of FIV, there are Australian FIV Guidelines in place to support.

Fortunately, Australia is one of the few countries with a FIV vaccine available to prevent FIV infection, so the first advice is for cat owners is to talk to their local vet about vaccination.

So, what does an FIV management plan entail or what do I do if my cat has FIV?

It is important to stress that FIV is not a death sentence and does not constitute grounds for euthanasia. A lot of cats with FIV infection, with the appropriate housing, appropriate veterinary care and low-stress living can do very well.

Owners should be encouraged to take an “if in doubt get it checked out” approach and act as soon as any concerning clinical signs or behaviours are noted.

A checklist of recommendations for basic healthcare of cats with FIV includes:

  • Do not allow cats with FIV to roam unsupervised outdoors. Keep them indoors, in secure outdoor enclosures or supervise all outdoor access.
  • Reduce behavioural stress within the current living environment.
  • Do not introduce new cats into the household.
  • Regular, twice-yearly veterinary health checks.
  • Prompt investigation of any health issues that emerge e.g. vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss.
  • Maintain standard vaccinations and parasite prevention.

Cats are highly intelligent animals and if housed exclusively indoors careful thought needs to be given as to how to fulfill each of the ‘Five Pillars’ of feline welfare, to ensure your cat is completely satisfied and happy[5]. For example, providing opportunity for normal play and (pretend play) predatory behaviours are essential!

Although it would be preferable that all cats were not infected with FIV, if you are thinking of adopting a cat, please do not let this put you off rescuing a FIV-infected cat from your local shelter!

Whilst Australia has a high prevalence of FIV, FIV infection can be managed, and an infected cat can live a relatively normal life.

 

About Dr Mark Westman

Dr Mark Westman led a panel of vets to create the first-ever Australian FIV Guidelines to help veterinarians diagnose, treat and prevent FIV infection.

He is an Honorary Research Affiliate at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney.

Sources

[1] Animal Medicines Australia Pets and the Pandemic Report 2021.

[2] Johnston, L., et al. (2017) Demographics, lifestyle and veterinary care of cats in Australia and New Zealand. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 19(12), 1199-1205.

[3] Westman, M.E., et al. (2016) Seroprevalence of feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukaemia virus in Australia: risk factors for infection and geographical influences (2011-2013). Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery Open Reports, 2(1), 1-11

[4] Johnston, L., et al. (2017) Demographics, lifestyle and veterinary care of cats in Australia and New Zealand. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 19(12), 1199-1205.

[5] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1098612X13477537 Ellis, S. L.; Rodan, I.; Carney, H. C.; Heath, S.; Rochlitz, I.;Shearburn, L. D.; Sundahl, E.; Westropp, J. L., AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. J. Feline Med. Surg. 2013, 15, (3), 219-230.

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