Questions still surround testing for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). FIV, or “feline AIDS,” is caused by a retrovirus like feline leukemia virus. It’s found in 1.5 to 5 percent of apparently healthy cats.
FIV is generally spread via cat bites, inflicted during a fight. Because FIV can suppress the immune system, infections of the skin, urinary tract, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and oral cavity are commonly seen in infected cats. These cats may cycle between good health and illness, often for long periods. Unfortunately, though, they usually ultimately succumb to FIV infection.
Many clinics, shelters, and rescue groups do a “quick screen” test for FIV, called an ELISA (enzyme linked immunosorbent assay). Done on site, this test screens for antibodies to FIV.
Most cats will show an antibody response to FIV within 60 days of infection by the virus. There can be false positives, though, so any positive feline should have a follow-up with a Western blot test. Kittens under 6 months of age who have an FIV-positive mother may test positive without being infected. Their tests may simply reflect the antibodies received from their dam while nursing. Those kittens should be retested after 6 months of age.
A complicating factor is FIV vaccination. Currently available tests can’t consistently distinguish between FIV antibodies that develop as a result of infection by FIV and those that result from vaccination. So, the vaccine history of a cat is necessary to interpret these tests. Some owners skip FIV vaccination for their indoor cats. If you have a cat who goes outdoors, have the cat tested before doing an FIV vaccine. Only FIV negative cats should be vaccinated.
If your cat tests positive for FIV but is healthy, you can give her more quality time. While most cats diagnosed with FIV live a median time of five years after diagnosis, these can be high-quality years of life. Minimize stress so her immune system is not overworked, and keep her preventive health care at the highest level.
While the possibility of infecting other susceptible cats exists for any FIV positive cat, cats that get along socially (i.e. they do not fight) may be able to live together without virus transmission, since bite wounds are most commonly required to spread the virus to another cat. Being proactive about an infected cat’s health care via veterinary check-ups every six months is recommended for the best possible outcome.