FIV – Feline Immunodeficiency Virus – Basic Information

As a cat parent it’s useful to have some basic knowledge about the care and health of your cat. This will include topics regarding their basic care like diet, dental care and their coat, but it’s also good to know some basic things about health issues that may arise. By having this knowledge, diseases and health issues can be noted sooner rather than later and early treatment and management will almost always be beneficial for the outcome. In this article we will have a closer look at FIV.

FIV – Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Feline immunodeficiency virus, or in short FIV, is a disease seen in cats around the world. FIV is sometimes also referred to as cat AIDS or cat HIV and should not be confused with FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis). A cat that tests positive for FIV does not automatically also have feline aids, which is when the cat starts showing clinical signs of the illness. FIV infected cats may live for years carrying the virus and not show any symptoms. There is no cure for FIV but studies show that cats that are infected generally live average lifespans.

FIV is an infectious disease that attacks the immune system which leads to its weakening in the long run. This weakened immune system makes FIV infected cats more susceptible to getting seriously ill from normally harmless viruses, protozoa, bacteria and fungi that are encountered in the environment and developing secondary infections.

FIV is primarily transmitted through bite wounds from infected cats. On rare occasions it can also be transferred from mother cat to kitten. When a pregnant cat gets infected with FIV during the pregnancy the likelihood the kittens get the virus increases. Another less common way of transmission is through intercourse. Other contact, like grooming, sneezing, sharing bowls and litter boxes, are not a way of transmission. This means that in a stable household with neutered cats that do not fight, transmission between cats is highly unlikely. As FIV is transmitted through bite wounds, the cats most at risk are un-neutered males that tend to get into fights. Male cats are twice as much at risk to contract FIV compared to female cats. FIV can not be transmitted to humans. 

Stray Cat

Stages of a FIV infection

A FIV infection has three stages, the acute phase, the asymptomatic phase and the progressive phase. 

The acute phase is often missed by owners as symptoms may be mild or the symptoms are attributed to other causes. Cats may show symptoms such as depression, lack of appetite, lymph node enlargement and fever. 

After the acute phase, cats will enter the asymptomatic phase. Cats can stay in the phase for months to years. Some cats will never leave this phase. In the asymptomatic phase the virus will very slowly replicate within the cells of the immune system. Cats will not show any sign of illness, though blood work may show signs like abnormal white blood cell levels.

During the progressive phase the virus will spread further through the immune system leaving the cat susceptible to secondary infections. Chronic and recurrent infections may develop. Gingivostomatitis, which is an infection of the mouth and gums that leads to sores and swelling, is commonly seen in cats infected with FIV. Other symptoms of cats in the progressive phase can be seizures, diarrhoea, poor coat condition, weight loss, infections of the eyes, skin, upper respiratory tract and urine tract, neurological disorders and behavioural changes. 


A first diagnosis can be done at the vet through an ELISA test which will detect antibodies in the blood. Infected cats will have antibodies in their blood for the rest of their lives. After a positive antibody test, a western blot or immunofluorescence assays (IFA) can be done at a laboratory for the final confirmation. Antibody tests need a certain amount of antibodies in the blood to be able to detect them, and it will take the body 2 to 6 months to develop enough antibodies to be detected by the test. This means that in certain situations, like a recently infected cat, tests mighti9o be negative initially, but turn positive after a few months. In cases where a recent infection is suspected, more than 1 test will need to be done to rule out an infection. In very rare cases, severely immunocompromised animals may also test negative as they no longer produce detectable levels. False positives are possible for cats that received the FIV vaccine and kittens that nurse from an infected mother, and in the latter case retesting in intervals is advised until 6 months of age for FIV to confirm whether or not kittens are truly infected.

Management and Treatment 

There is no cure for FIV and it’s impossible to predict the course the disease will take in a specific cat. Cats with FIV can lead normal and healthy lives, but the prognosis will vary vastly from cat to cat. In infected cats it’s important to try and prevent secondary infections by feeding them nutritionally correct, complete and balanced meals. Additional medicine to boost the immune system can be given. Antiviral therapies and medication can help extend the periods where a cat does not have symptoms. Early treatment of FIV can extend the life expectancy and will improve the quality of life. Wellness visits to your vet should be part of the routine, at least twice a year. When cats show any signs of illness, they should be treated by a vet at the earliest and more intense treatments might be needed. After operations and dental work preventative antibiotics might be prescribed to prevent an infection taking hold. Precautions should be taken to prevent spreading of the illness by keeping your FIV infected cat indoors, creating a stable household with other cats that might live there, and by neutering. 


FIV is not a death sentence for cats and most can lead happy and normal lives with the right management. Through this article we hope to have answered some of the questions one may have about FIV. 

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