“I was on my way back to the sanctuary after a family visit in Colorado. Curled up beside me, purring contentedly, was Reggie, the cat nobody dared take in. You’d think he was an unexploded bomb or an X-rated movie.
Make that FIV-rated.
FIV stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s a lentivirus, meaning that it progresses very slowly, gradually affecting a cat’s immune system. It is passed through blood transfusions and through serious, penetrating bite wounds – mainly by stray, intact tom cats. The most well-known lentivirus in humans is HIV.
- FIV is a slow virus that affects a cat’s immune system over a period of years.
- FIV is a cat-only disease that cannot be spread to humans or other non-felines
But the two are not at all the same, and you can’t get FIV from a cat. In fact, the only thing about FIV that you can catch is a bad case of the rumors.
Reggie is six years old. “I fell in love with him at the shelter and decided to try to find him a home,” said Connie, who had rescued him, but then became infected by the rumors. “When my vet diagnosed him with FIV, nobody wanted him.”
“How does he get on with other cats?” I asked, innocently.
“My cats have NOT been exposed to him,” Connie replied. “So, I don’t know how he reacts to other cats.”
I started to explain that a friend of mine, Karen Green, has had her FIV cat, Bentley, living with her other cats for five years, but Connie was already glazing over. She didn’t even want to listen, even though she wanted the best for Reggie.
Reggie stretched and snoozed some more in the car. And I spent the 12-hour drive thinking about finding Reggie – and other cats like him – a good home. When I got back, I went straight to visit Karen.
Bentley – like a Rolls
“I once got a desperate e-mail from an 80-year-old woman,” she told me. “Her only cat had just been diagnosed with FIV. The cat was perfectly normal and healthy, but her veterinarian had suggested euthanizing him. The woman was desolated. She asked if we would take him at Best Friends. I said she should keep him. But it was my word against the vet’s.”
(While Karen is talking, Bentley jumps onto her lap. He’s a big cat, with a purr like a Rolls Royce – or maybe a Bentley.)
“He was a stray cat who a woman had been putting out food for until she became incapacitated. I took him home myself. He has such personality. I wasn’t surprised when he tested positive for FIV. He fit the standard high-risk profile – he’d been a large, roaming, unneutered male.”
Bentley continues to be the most mellow and affectionate cat. Kids love him. So do other cats. Men admire his macho good looks, and with his paternal instincts, he has helped Karen foster 12 kittens in the past five years. All of them tested negative for FIV, of course.
“I had a roommate,” Karen tells me, “whose vet told her to euthanize her 12-year-old cat when he was diagnosed with FIV! Big John is now 20 years old and completely blind, but otherwise perfectly healthy! People are always surprised to see how healthy Bentley is. But that’s the way most of them are!” She has some happy-ending stories, too, like the letter from a woman who wrote: “After reading about FIV, I realized that much of the fear is simply unfounded. So, I’ve decided to keep this cat and raise him with my other cat, Jasmine.”
As long as cats with FIV are not exposed to diseases that their immune system can’t handle, they can live perfectly normal lives. And they can only pass the virus on to other cats through a serious, penetrating bite wound. So, unless your cats at home routinely tear each other to pieces, it’s not a problem. (And if your cats are tearing each other up, that’s probably a bigger problem!)
Dissolving Old Fears
Dr. Susan Cotter, professor of hematology and oncology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of those who have helped dissolve these old fears. “I wouldn’t advise getting rid of a cat that tests positive for FIV,” she says. “If the cat is young and healthy, it could be years before anything changes.”
Best Friends veterinarian Dr. Virginia Clemans says the one important thing is to keep your FIV cat healthy. (That, of course, is good advice for all your cats!)
“The virus affects the immune system,” she explains. “So keep FIV cats indoors. Make sure they get regular vaccinations. And give them a high-quality diet. Keep an eye on them, and take them to the veterinarian at the first sign of illness.”
Am I in the wrong room?
A couple of weeks after I had brought Reggie to the Best Friends sanctuary, I went to visit him at the TLC Cat Club. Lezlie Sage was there, too, trying to decide whom to take on a weekend mobile adoption trip. “When I first came to work at Best Friends, I walked into one of our FIV rooms, and I thought I must be in the wrong room. I didn’t know very much back then, and I expected to see sick cats. But all I saw were healthy ones. Now I know about FIV, and I know there’s absolutely no reason for these wonderful kitties not to be in good homes.”
As Lezlie was talking, sweet Reggie had curled up in my lap and gone to sleep. I looked around and saw some of the most handsome, healthy cats you could imagine. A bunch of them were all curled up in a basket together, grooming each other and purring. The most comfortable kitties in the world, I thought.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a slow-acting virus that weakens a cat’s immune system over the years. This makes the cat susceptible to secondary infections.
But there’s good news: FIV-positive cats who receive regular medical care and live in low-stress, indoor homes can lead long, largely normal lives.
NOTE: Many people confuse FIV with FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), but they are very different. In most cases, FIV tends to have less of an impact on lifespan than FeLV.