Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) belongs to the family retroviridae. It is an infectious disease found in cats and is similar to the HIV virus found in humans. FIV weakens the immune system of the infected animal and makes it susceptible to infections and diseases that do not normally attack healthy cats. There is no cure for FIV.
The condition is fatal in the long run but there is no reason why an infected cat cannot live for a reasonably long time by being treated aggressively for secondary infection. It is heartening to know that FIV in cats does not lead to AIDS as often as HIV does in humans. It should also be noted that apart from domestic cats, FIV can afflict pumas, cougars, lions, tigers–basically all species in the cat family.
In the U.S, one to three percent of the domestic cats are afflicted by the condition. Common modes of transmission include from saliva to blood, which means bite wounds. A cat delivering kittens can pass on the virus to kittens; however, this mode of transmission is not observed very frequently. Similarly sexual transmission of the virus too is not considered a common cause. It is best that pet cats not be allowed to mingle with strays.
Once inside a cat’s body, the virus travels to the lymph nodes where it attacks the T cells, which are a type of white blood cells responsible for maintaining the body’s immunity against bacterial, viral, and fungal attacks. This is followed by a reduction in the RBC and WBC count. The virus can then go into a period of hibernation which may last for years. The infected cat appears outwardly normal but is infected all the same. Over a period of time, signs and symptoms indicating immunodeficiency appear; the cat can take ill even when faced with viruses and bacteria which it otherwise is equipped to tackle.
Loss of interest in eating and pain in chewing are common clinical symptoms of the condition. Recurrent infections of the skin, urinary bladder, and kidney are noted. Seizures and sleep disorders may be noted in some cats. Weight loss and wasting are noted in the later stages.
The condition is diagnosed using the FIV antibody test; positive results are corroborated using an ELISA test kit. The FIV test which checks for antibodies is popular because detecting the virus in the blood is difficult. The virus concentrations are often too low to appear in the test results. Some clinics may prefer to perform the Western blot or immunoblot procedure.
Because FIV itself is not treatable, vets try to treat the secondary conditions that arise. Antibiotics are administered regularly depending upon the nature of infection. Blood transfusions may have to be given. Particular care needs to be taken about the pet cat’s diet. A high calorie and protein rich diet should be followed to counter weight loss and wasting. Vitamins and anti-oxidants should be given.
Because the disease-causing agent is a retrovirus and there are multiple strains of the virus, it is difficult for researchers to develop a vaccine. However, single strain vaccines have been developed and these have exhibited good results in immunizing cats.