Common myths about FIV

Myths or Facts

When you seek advice about FIV, how do you know
if what you are told is accurate?

There are many myths that have grown up around the subject of FIV. Although they are gradually being overtaken by the truth, there are still many who have not learned and still perpetuate these myths.

There are many scenarios where one is told what should be done about a cat that tests positive for FIV. It could be when a stray cat one has been feeding is taken to a rescue centre or vet; it may be when a pet cat is ill and the vet tests to find that the cat is FIV positive, or many other possible ways that one becomes introduced to the subject of FIV. Sadly, the advice one receives is often not correct.

It would be useful to know whether the adviser is FIV-aware or FIV-prejudiced - here are some clues:

If you are told FIV is "AIDS" - BEWARE!
Most cats with FIV are actually very healthy; they simply have a virus that is very slowly affecting their immune system, but which can take several years before it has any noticeable effect at all - whereas AIDS is when the immune system has been reduced so far that it is overwhelmed by secondary infections, so the cat cannot deal with them and quickly spirals towards the end of its life - most FIV cats NEVER get AIDS; they live good lives and die naturally from all the usual causes of death that any cat may suffer, including 'old age'!

If you are told an FIV cat will be ill and suffer - BEWARE!
This is the biggest misconception of all about FIV.  Because the virus is extremely slow acting, and takes many years before it has any noticeable effect, and in reality often never reaches that point, FIV cats will not suffer any more illness than uninfected cats. If an FIV cat becomes ill, it is almost always very little to do with the virus.

If you are told that an FIV cat is contagious and will inevitably pass the virus to others - BEWARE!
FIV is NOT contagious - it is transmitted almost always through a serious bite. The virus is present in the saliva, but is very short-lived once out of the body, so it is when it is effectively injected (by a bite) directly into contact with blood that it is transferred to another cat. So, if the FIV cat doesn't fight, it won't pass on the virus, and cats don't normally fight once they are neutered and properly fed and cared for. It remains the uncared for and unneutered strays who spread the virus. There are examples later in the booklet of households that have FIV cats living together with uninfected cats for many years without transmitting the virus.

If you are told that an illness an FIV cat has, is 'because' of the FIV - BEWARE!
As mentioned above, FIV cats have a gradually weakening immune system, so when they are affected by any of the usual cat ailments, they may not be able to deal with it quite as efficiently as they might, so may take longer to recover, or need stronger medication. There are very few ailments that can be attributed to the FIV itself, so any vet who suggests otherwise should be questioned carefully; usually the treatment of ailments in an FIV cat is just the same as it would be for any other cat, it just may need a longer course of treatment.

If you are told that a cat with FIV (that is otherwise reasonably healthy) is going to die because of the FIV - BEWARE!
This is covered in the other items in this section - basically the only FIV cat that will die because of being FIV is one that has been a long-term stray, uncared for and having a poor diet, that has already succumbed to multiple secondary infections. This will not be the case with an FIV cat that is otherwise healthy, cared for and has a good diet. Cared-for FIV cats invariably die from exactly the same causes as non-FIV cats - FIV cats die with the virus, not from the virus.

If you are told to test a young kitten for FIV with the in-house test - BEWARE!
Testing a kitten for FIV with the in-house test is a complete waste of time and money - the reason is that the test looks for FIV antibodies which are produced by the body in response to the virus. This is fine in an adult cat, but not for a kitten, because a kitten born to an FIV mother will inherit the antibodies from her, but rarely the virus, so although it would test positive for FIV, it is unlikely to have the virus. The kitten will, over several months, lose its mother's antibodies, and would then test negative for FIV. If it is important to know whether a kitten is actually FIV or not without waiting until it is six months old, there is a different test known as a PCR which looks for the DNA of the virus itself. This test is not widely available (see here for more on FIV testing).

If you are told that FIV will be transmitted by sharing food bowls - BEWARE!
This is a confusion with FeLV (leukaemia virus). FIV is not transmitted by the normal sharing of food bowls and mutual grooming. Although the virus is present in the saliva, it very quickly dies when out of the body. Secondly, even if another cat was to take the virus in by mouth, it still has to cross the mucous membrane in order to get into the blood stream. Note: it has been shown that the stomach acids are very effective at destroying the virus, so any virus would need to cross the mucous membrane before it reaches the stomach.

A good example of how efficient the mucous membrane is at preventing the FIV from crossing into the bloodstream, is with kittens born to an FIV mother.  As stated earlier, a kitten will not normally inherit the FIV from its mother, but the virus is present in her milk, which obviously the kittens will consume for several weeks, yet it is unusual for a kitten to contract the virus this way. So if a kitten with that much exposure to the virus does not become infected, how much less likely is it that an adult sharing a food bowl that had previously been licked by an FIV would do so?

If you are told that an FIV cat must be kept away from other cats - BEWARE!
As has been illustrated above, FIV will not be transmitted casually, but through a serious bite, so the question of mixing FIV and non-FIV cats is more a question of the nature of the cats. Basically, will they have a serious fight? Most cats, once neutered and given regular food and a place to live, will not fight.  A good example is our own Fivery, which has been home to around 20 male cats living communally for several years, with new ones joining regularly. If the cats were to fight, it would be bedlam, but in the years we have had the Fivery, we have never had a serious fight! Careful introduction of new ones is all that is needed. There are several examples of FIV cats living together with uninfected cats without transmitting the virus (see mixed households).

If you are told that an FIV cat (that is generally healthy) should be euthanased because of the FIV - Don't do it! - If it was a vet who told you, then CHANGE VETS!
This is the extreme case, but sadly does happen. All the foregoing should explain why putting an otherwise healthy FIV cat down just because it is FIV is, in our view, unpardonable. The only reason to end an FIV cat's life is if it is suffering too much from secondary infections or other ailments that have proved to be untreatable - just like any other cat.

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