Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is in the same family, Retroviridae, as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV).  Therefore, they share certain characteristics, such as the ability to suppress a cat’s immune system and to initiate and allow the growth and spread of cancer.  The virus was discovered in 1986.

FIV is known as the virus of unfriendly cats. It is most commonly transmitted by the bite of an infected cat, as high levels of the virus are present in saliva. Fighting among outdoor cats is a very common practice and leads to sometimes-fatal bacterial infections in abscesses as well as FeLV and FIV transmission. Deep bites deposit the virus into tissues that can incubate the virus and present it to the immune system for replication (reproduction of the virus) and spread throughout the body.

Shortly after initial infection the cat becomes ill, but this is often a mild illness that may be missed by cat owners. If the bite wound is also infected by oral bacteria from the neighborhood bully, signs of illness may be attributed to that.

What does the future hold for my FIV-infected cat?
 Unlike Feline Leukemia Virus-exposed cats, kitties infected with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus are infected for life. There are no documented reports of cats converting to a negative status after testing positive.
Click here to understand testing for both Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and Feline Leukemia Virus.

The Rest Of The Story, however, is not all bad.

Indeed, cats infected with FIV may not become ill for years. Still, in the background, damage is being done to the immune system that will set the stage for an eventual downfall.

There are two main functional parts of the immune system, cell-mediated immunity (CMI) and humoral immunity. Cell-mediated immunity, as its name implies, uses various cells in the body to fight infection and disease. CMI is damaged most in FIV patients, thus they tend to develop cancers, as well as infections of organisms that thrive inside cells. Being a retrovirus, FIV naturally has a strong tendency to produce cancer. On top of that, lacking a healthy CMI, some cancers escape early destruction that a strong CMI might have stopped. These facts explain why cancer is so prevalent in FIV-infected cats.

Unusual skin conditions may be seen in FIV patients. I have seen some very unusual patterns of hair loss in these cats, and the only case of Demodex felis  I’ve seen in 30 years of practice was in an FIV cat whose immune system was suppressed.

Humoral immunity is based on the production of antibodies that circulate in the bloodstream. As long as strong humoral immunity persists, diseases that antibodies can kill are not experienced.

How do I manage my FIV-infected cat?
 At one time it was believed that cats who did not fight would neither transmit nor receive Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Sadly, that has not proven to be the case.

While fighting is still known to be the major mode of transmission, infrequent cases are confirmed in which FIV has been transmitted among housemates even where there is no fighting and no outside exposure.

Laboratory-reared queens have been documented to transmit the virus through milk to their kittens.

Virus is frequently present in semen, and some cases of sexual intercourse transmission have occurred.

Cats who test positive for FIV must be isolated. They absolutely must be kept indoors for their own protection from disease, as well as to prevent them from exposing other cats. Ideally they should be in a one-cat household. If there are other cats in the home the FIV-infected cat must live totally separated and must not interact with the others. When leaving the room or area allotted to the FIV cat, you must thoroughly disinfect your hands and any fomites that must leave the room.

In summary, while the long-term future is not good for the cat infected with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, cats who are kept isolated and have their preventive health care properly managed can live for a surprisingly long time with their disease.

MyPetsDoctor.com expresses our gratitude to Dr. Julie Levy and her associates who published much of this information in The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2008.MMFIV

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  1. I have a 6 year old FIV cat and he keeps getting issues with the fauces; teeth are fine, gums red, most of the problem in the rear of the throat. My doctor puts him regularly on Convenia and Orbax, plus the “pink” steroid when he has a crisis. He seems another cat when he is on the meds: energetic, playful, great appetite. Will this issue be eventually eradicated? I just found him one year ago. Any other treatment you would suggest? Thanks

    • Carlos, you are a compassionate soul, to take on such a challenge. Cats whose immune systems have been zapped by immunosuppressive viruses have difficult hurdles in front of them. The best advice I can come up with is to ask your local veterinarian for a referral to a board-certified veterinary dentist. They are the specialists in such areas. The other alternative is that your veterinarian may be blessed like I am, to have a nearby colleague who is a veterinary dentist and with whom he can consult. He may be able to take your kitty to a higher level of comfort. Best wishes, Dr. Randolph.

  2. I am considering adopting a cat into a single cat household. This cat is 2 1/2 years old, is very healthy but has been diagnosed at the shelter as FIV positive. While I understand the need to keep him indoors, and the fact that his immune system is compromised (I am a science teacher), I am having difficulties in getting some sense of his possible life span. You have “surprisingly” long lives, someone has months or even years but it would help me if that could be translated into (usually) 1- 2 years, 2- 5 years or 5-10 years before significant symptoms would present. Thank you for just a “on average” idea even though I know it can be much less or even more hopefully.

    • I don’t know that statistics have been gathered on average life expectancy after diagnosis. Note from the post on FIV that “time from diagnosis” and “time from infection” are two important unknowns in the equation. Your adoptee could have been infected two and one-half years ago, theoretically. Other variables include the kitty’s overall health, the strength of his immune system, his intestinal parasite status, etc. Keep in mind, too, that less than two percent (<2%) of the cat population nationwide is infected with this virus, so it’s hard to gather statistics on such a small group. Furthermore, the members of that group are not in a database anywhere, they’re just “out there,” scattered across the country. The good news: FIV tends to progress more slowly than FeLV-associated diseases. For a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is our very transient local population, I’ve never had occassion to observe an FIV-infected patient live for long. As stated in the FeLV article, I once had an FeLV-infected patient live for five years from the time I diagnosed him. I’m sorry I couldn’t help with more specifics. The bottom line is really a different question: “How much tolerance do I have for the heartbreak of losing this pet, whenever it might happen?”
      Best wishes,
      Dr. Randolph

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