First discovered in a California cattery in 1986, FIV resembles the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS in that both are retroviruses that target their hosts' immune systems. FIV is feline-specific, and HIV is human-specific-there are no recorded instances of a person contracting feline AIDS from a cat.
How Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Is Transmitted
Cats can contract FIV in two significant ways. The most common method of transmission is when an infected cat bites another cat and passes the virus in saliva to the other cat's bloodstream.
The second, but less common, transmission route is when an infected female cat gives birth to a litter of kittens. Some kittens become infected during birth, while others may become infected by consuming their mother's milk.
No cure currently exists for FIV, but vaccination can help protect your cat from becoming infected with the virus. The vaccination is especially recommended for outdoor cats due to their increased risk of exposure to the virus.
Signs of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
FIV passes through three separate stages-acute, latent and final-after your cat becomes infected.
The acute first phase is when the first clinical signs of disease show up. These occur about six weeks after the cat has been infected and include swollen lymph nodes, a decreased white blood cell count and fever.
The second latent stage may last for many years and is marked by a lack of indications of illness. Although a cat does not appear to be ill, her immune system is being damaged by the virus. Cats in the latent stage of FIV can still shed the virus and should not be exposed to other cats, especially those that have not been exposed to the virus.
The third and final stage of the disease begins when secondary infections take over. Indications of this stage can include lethargy, fever, appetite and weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes.
Many cats in third stage FIV develop anemia, pneumonia, skin problems, ear infections, neurological problems, cancers, eye problems, chronic mouth infections or gastrointestinal problems. Death usually occurs within a year of the third stage clinical signs developing.
When the virus was first discovered, the long-term outlook for FIV-infected cats was bleak, and veterinarians routinely recommended euthanizing infected animals. Today, cats with FIV can live relatively normal life spans before becoming seriously ill.
Other Diseases You Can Catch from Your Cat
While it's impossible to contract FIV from your cat, other zoonotic diseases (those that can pass between people and animal species) may be passed onto you by your cat. Among these are cat-scratch disease, roundworms, hookworms, ringworm, cryptosporidiosis, Giardia, toxoplasmosis and rabies.
To reduce the chances of contracting a disease from your cat, follow a few simple precautions, including
- Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching cat feces or cleaning a litter box;
- Washing any cat scratches or bites promptly with soap and water; and
- Keeping your cat's rabies vaccination current.