Do Cats Get AIDS? Understanding Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a retrovirus that attacks a cat’s immune system. Between 2.5 and 5% of all cats in North America are infected. 

FIV is spread between cats through deep bite wounds from an infected cat. If a cat with FIV becomes sick, it is usually from secondary infections, problems with the immune system or a condition that is totally unrelated to the FIV infection.

Most cats with FIV can go on to live long, happy lives. They should never be euthanized based on a positive diagnosis for FIV. Cats with FIV make great companions for people and can live happily in a multi-cat household, as long as the cats all get along well together. 

Here are some common misconceptions about FIV:

  • FIV Myth #1 – FIV is feline AIDS.

Similar to human HIV and AIDS, FIV is a virus that can cause feline AIDS. However, the majority of cats that test positive for FIV will have a long life expectancy, will remain asymptomatic, and will never develop AIDS.

  • FIV Myth #2 – FIV can be transmitted from infected cats to other animals or people.

FIV is a virus specific to cats, and cannot be transmitted to humans or other species. You cannot become infected with FIV. 

  • FIV Myth #3 – A cat diagnosed with FIV will have a short life, or be very sick for the rest of their life. 

Cats with FIV may never get sick. The progression of FIV is very slow, and most cats die of natural causes before they ever show symptoms. 

  • FIV Myth #4 – Cats with FIV can’t live with other cats.

Because FIV is transmitted through deep bite wounds, cats with FIV can live with other cats – provided they all get along well and there is not a risk of fighting. Studies show that transmission of FIV in multi-cat households is rare. 

  • FIV Myth #5 – The only way to protect a cat from FIV is to keep them away from infected cats.

Non-infected cats can safely live with other cats (see myth #4, above!). However, keeping cats inside, especially male cats who are not neutered, is another important factor in preventing FIV infection. Neutering your cat will dramatically decrease the risk of FIV as it decreases territorialism and fighting.

  • FIV Myth #6 – Cats with FIV should be euthanized.

Cats infected with FIV do not need to be euthanized. With support and loving care, cats with FIV can go on to live long, happy lives with their human companions. 

Diagnosing Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

FIV is diagnosed through a blood test. The blood test will look for the presence of specific antibodies that indicate an FIV infection. Sometimes, your veterinarian may order further testing before diagnosing your cat with FIV.

Prevention & Treatment of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

FIV has no cure. If your cat tests positive for FIV, your veterinarian will create a plan to help manage your cat’s health, with the goal of keeping them asymptomatic for as long as possible. Remember, the majority of cats will live long, healthy lives and they should not be euthanized.

There are steps you can take to help prevent FIV infection:

  • Have your cat tested. Testing for FIV should be part of your cat’s regular, routine care. If you have adopted your cat from a shelter, ask if they have been tested for FIV, as well as what the results of the test were. At Cat Healthy, our protocols recommend that cats are tested in the following situations:
    • At-risk cats: All sick cats, cats with bite wounds or oral disease, cats with known exposure to a retrovirus-infected cat, cats living in multi-cat environments where the status of every cat is not known. Sick cats should be tested regardless of a previous negative FIV test result.
    • Newly acquired cats and kittens.
    • Cats at ongoing risk of infection (e.g. cats with access to outdoors) should be tested annually for FIV.
  • Keep your cat indoors. Cats who have access to the outdoors are more likely to acquire a FIV infection.
  • Spay or neuter your cat. Cats who are not spayed or neutered are more likely to be aggressive, increasing the risk they will fight with other cats.

What Happened to the FIV Vaccine?

In 2015, Canada and the United States discontinued the use of the FIV vaccine. The vaccine provided limited protection against FIV, and often resulted in false positive test results.

Living With a Cat With Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

We all know that cats make wonderful companions, and that includes cats who are infected with FIV. You and your FIV positive cat can enjoy a happy life together! Your veterinarian will be your partner in your cat’s health, so make sure to book regular visits and follow any instructions they give you for at-home care. Here’s to many happy years with your kitty friend!

This article was written by Cat Healthy feline specialist Dr. Liz O’Brien DVM, DABVP and sponsored by IDEXX.