FIV Infection on the Rise: Know the Facts


The Banfield Pet Hospital annual State of Pet Health Report for 2014 revealed a sharp increase in infectious diseases among cats. The reports analyzed data from the nearly 470,000 cats cared for in Banfield’s 850 hospitals across the nation.

The report showed a 48 percent increase in the prevalence of the feline immune deficiency virus (FIV). According to the report,

  • approximately one in every 300 cats seen in Banfield hospitals in 2013 was infected with FIV.
  • The highest prevalence of FIV infection was found in Oklahoma, Iowa and Arkansas.
  • Male cats are three times as likely to be infected with FIV as females.
  • Intact cats older than 1 year were 3.5 times as likely to be infected with FIV as same-aged spayed or neutered cats.

The reports also showed an increase in feline leukemia (FeLV) and upper respiratory infections.

What is FIV?

FIV is is an often misunderstood condition. According to the Feline Health Center at Cornell University, the virus affects approximately 1.5 to 3 percent of healthy cats in the United States, with slightly higher rates in cats that are sick or at high risk for infection. FIV is a lentivirus, which means it moves very slowly, and it gradually affects a cat’s immune system. It is passed from cat to cat through blood transfusions and serious, penetrating bite wounds. FIV cannot be transmitted to humans.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this virus. Contrary to what many people believe, FIV cats can live long, healthy lives if cared for properly. My former office cat, Virginia, lived to be 14, despite her FIV positive status.

FIV is not spread through casual contact.

FIV is transmitted primarily through deep, penetrating bite wounds. Casual, non-aggressive contact of cats living in the same household does not spread the virus. On rare occasions, the virus is transmitted from the mother cat to her kittens, usually during passage of the kittens through the birth canal, or when they ingest infected milk.

Infected cats may never show symptoms.

Infected cats may appear normal for years. The only way to diagnose FIV is through a blood test. A positive test indicates the presence of antibodies. Since there is the possibility of false positives, veterinarians often recommend retesting, using a test with a different format. In kittens born to an FIV positive nursing mother, antibody tests will most likely show positive results for several months, although these kittens are unlikely to be infected. The kittens should be retested every two months until they’re six months old.

What happens if infected cats become symptomatic?

Some cats may show a pattern of non-specific recurring illness. Symptoms typically include poor coat condition, loss of appetite, fever, inflammation of the gums and mouth (gingivitis or stomatitis), chronic and recurring infections of various organ systems, persistent diarrhea, slow weight loss, and various cancers and blood diseases.

FIV positive cats can live well into their teens with proper treatment.

Since all of these symptoms can be indicative of any number of other conditions, it’s important to work closely with your veterinarian if you have an FIV positive cat. A case of “just not doing right” in a healthy cat that may resolve on its own in a day or two could be a precursor to a more serious condition in a cat with a compromised immune system.

Should you vaccinate your cat against FIV?

There is a vaccine available that is supposed to protect cats against contracting FIV, but the effectiveness is poorly supported by current research, and, as with all vaccines, there is also a risk of the cat developing sarcomas at the injection site. Additionally, cats will always test positive for FIV after receiving the vaccine, so if they become ill later in life, there will be no way to eliminate FIV from the diagnosis.

An FIV infection does not have to be a death sentence, and it is not necessary to get rid of a cat who tests positive, nor should it preclude adoption of an FIV positive cat.

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