Feline AIDS is one of the most common diseases in cats: why regular screening is important
László Enikő, 2022. February 15 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary, Suttogó Veterinary Clinic
In particular, FIV, commonly known as feline AIDS, is a major threat to outdoor cats, which often roam the streets. But early detection of the disease can save the life of the animal.
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Letting your pet roam the streets can be dangerous in many ways. At any moment he could be involved in a serious accident, and he could also contract illnesses from which he may not recover. Among others, FIV (Feline immunodeficiency virus) is one of them.
What is feline AIDS?
Feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, is a retroviral infection. The virus is often called feline AIDS, as it affects the animal in a similar way to the human HIV virus. The disease is not transmitted to humans or other animals, only felines are at risk. Detection of its presence is complicated by the fact that the animal may be asymptomatic for years before showing any symptoms. The virus causes extensive damage to the cells of the cat’s immune system, often targeting white blood cells. This means that the body is constantly weakened and the kittens become more susceptible to secondary infections.
How is the disease spread?
FIV is typically transmitted by biting and scratching, but it can also be transmitted by saliva, i.e. by individuals grooming or licking each other. Because cats are highly territorial, they often get into fights with others, so it is mainly freeroaming or stray cats that are at the greatest risk.
Sharing a feeding and drinking bowl should be avoided, even for cats living in the same household. On the one hand, this is better to avoid infecting the other, and on the other hand, cats don’t like to share them in the first place. An FIV-positive mother cat can pass the disease to her kittens in the womb or through infected breast milk.
Many people confuse feline AIDS with feline leukosis, as they can cause similar symptoms. But it is important to note that although both are members of the retrovirus family, they are different diseases. FIV has three phases. There are acute, asymptomatic (latent) and progressive stages. The acute phase occurs 1-3 months after infection, when the virus enters the lymph nodes, where it replicates in T-lymphocytes, which are white blood cells. It then spreads to other lymph nodes, causing them to become temporarily enlarged. It is often accompanied by fever, loss of appetite and depression. In some cases, this phase can be very mild, making it difficult for owners to realise that something is wrong with their cat.
After the acute phase, cats enter an asymptomatic phase that can last for years. During this time the virus replicates very slowly and the animals show no signs of disease. Infected individuals may develop blood disorders, such as low white blood cell counts. Some cats stay at this stage and never get worse. However, as the virus spreads, some cats can develop a progressive immune deficiency, which can lead to secondary infections. In most cases, it is not the FIV itself that causes the serious problem, but the infections and diseases it causes. Cats may develop chronic or recurrent infections of the skin, eyes, urinary tract or upper respiratory tract. They are also more likely to develop gingivitis, and are at higher risk of developing cancer and immune-mediated blood diseases.
How is the diagnosis made?
Rapid tests can detect the disease with an accuracy of around 80-90%. If the kitten has not yet produced antibodies, the test may be falsely negative. If symptoms are suggestive of FIV, a new test is recommended 8 weeks later. When a cat is found to be infected, it should be kept completely isolated from the other cats, as it can pass the disease on to them. If one pet in a household tests positive, the other cats in the household must be tested.
If your cat has feline AIDS
Infected pets can live long and full lives if they are treated properly. Six-monthly check-ups are very important, and a complete blood count and urinalysis are also recommended annually.
How can the disease be prevented?
A study carried out by Hungarian researchers found that cats living outdoors are four times more likely to be infected than those living indoors. In addition, male cats are more likely to get the disease than their counterparts of the opposite sex. As there is no vaccine against it, the most important thing is to keep your pet off the streets and make sure it is neutered. And regular screening can help to detect the problem in time.
Dr. Regina Matuska, the Suttogó Veterinary Clinic veterinarian said this about the FIV virus in cats:
“FIV infection – Feline Immunodeficiency Virus – or commonly known as feline AIDS, is an incurable viral disease that causes the immune system in infected cats to malfunction, making them more susceptible to various infections. FIV is transmitted by scratching, biting, infected saliva, nasal secretions or blood, which is why the disease is more common in fighting, outgoing tom cats. After infection, there is an asymptomatic phase lasting up to several years (5-8), and some cats do not even show symptoms. It is important to note that the kitten is still spreading the disease in this state. If symptoms develop, they are usually not typical.
In clinical practice, FIV infection can be detected by rapid tests (80-90% reliability) that detect antibodies to the virus produced from a few drops of blood. False negative tests may be obtained in FIV-infected cats that have not yet produced antibodies (2-4 weeks post-infection), or may be negative in the knockdown phase due to lack of antibodies. In the former case, if symptoms are suggestive of infection, a repeat test is recommended after 8 weeks.
Unfortunately, as far as we know today, we cannot eradicate the FIV virus from infected cats. Therapy of the disease is limited to symptomatic treatment and treatment of various secondary infections.
It is recommended to keep infected animals indoors or spay/neuter them (for their own and other cats’ sake), and if there are several cats in a household, the other cats should be tested.
Various immune boosting products are available to support the immune system of cats and we also recommend annual or biannual review of FIV-positive animals.”
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