Feature Article – Feline Aids (FIV)

This section of the Newsletter will provide information about particular cat care issues in short articles written by us or by guest authors.

Feline Aids (FIV) – What Dee Dee and Tiffany learned from Emerson and Katie

In the spring of 2003, Dee Dee’s feral colony matriarch (Poe) had her last litter and, when they were barely two weeks old, Poe delivered these four kittens to Dee Dee’s backdoor.  One of them, a spry tiger male, was adopted by Tiffany Miller (see the profile of Tiffany later in this newsletter) and is now known as Emerson.  Another of them, a female, who is white with tiger markings and very fluffy, was adopted by Dee Dee, named Kate (after Katherine Hepburn) and is now called Katie.

Both Emerson and Katie were kitten false positives for Feline Aids (FIV). (By false positives, we mean that while they tested positive as kittens, they were later found to actually be FIV negative.)  Emerson tested negative by eight months of age.  Katie still tested positive at ten months, but at one year of age was able to have a more definitive test for FIV and, gratefully, finally had negative test results as well.  This was an important learning experience for both Dee Dee and Tiffany. They were aware of FIV, but had luckily had only had FIV negative test results for their kittens until this time.  With Katie and Emerson’s initial test results, their learning curves went way up as a matter of necessity.  They now know that FIV is NOT a death sentence, and that many FIV positive cats live happy normal lives (with an average lifespan of 10 years). They also learned a lot about the reliability of various FIV tests.

The most common (and the least expensive) test used to detect FIV is the Combo Test, which is also used to detect Feline Leukemia.  This test can be administered to kittens at eight weeks of age.  The problem with its use for FIV testing at this age is that, since it tests for FIV antibodies instead of the disease itself, it will almost always yield a positive finding for any kitten that has been fed by a mother cat who either is FIV positive herself or who has been exposed to FIV.  Having the FIV antibodies present, however, does not mean that the kitten will actually get Feline Aids; the FIV antibodies may, and often do, disappear with time.  Repeat testing with the Combo Test when a kitten that originally tested FIV positive will often yield FIV negative results, as it did in Emerson’s case.  But, sometimes, as in the case of Katie, even that isn’t sufficient.  In these cases, veterinarians recommend that the Western Blot test be given when the cat reaches its first birthday.  The Western Blot tests for FIV itself and can definitively validate or refute earlier test results from the Combo test.       

Because FIV is communicable to other cats, Katie needed to be kept isolated from the rest of Dee Dee’s cat household during her first year of life, until her negative test result came in. Her socialization to the household was, therefore, incomplete.  She was comfortable with the humans, but didn’t even know the other cats.  Dee Dee and Tiffany are currently making the effort to socialize Katie, one cat at a time. Understandably, a few have passed on making friends with her and there are also a few that she simply hisses at.  But progress is being made.  Luckily, patience is one of Dee Dee’s and Tiffany’s strong points.

Key Lessons Learned:

  • An FIV positive test result on a Combo Test for a kitten is not definitive; only the Western Blot test actually tests for the disease.  Retesting when the kitten is older is essential to detect kitten false positives for FIV.  The Cornell Feline Health Center recommends retesting 60 days after an initial FIV positive result.
  • According to The Cornell Feline Health Center, FIV’s primary mode of transmission is bite wounds. Casual non aggressive contact does not appear to be an efficient route of spreading FIV.   Additionally, sexual contact is not a major means of spreading FIV. 
  • In a household with other cats, isolation of a kitten who has tested FIV positive is a necessary course of action.  If the kitten later tests negative, socialization to the other cats in the household will take special effort, but is definitely possible.
  • In a household with no other cats, an FIV positive cat can lead a positive, healthy life, with no special restrictions
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