There are a variety of viruses in Australia capable of causing severe illness in cats. One of the most serious viruses is the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which can eventually lead to feline AIDS. FIV is estimated to infect between 14 to 29 per cent of the Australian cat population according to RSPCA.
FIV is an infectious disease similar to HIV in humans, and it can be found in domestic cats as well as wild cats including lions, tigers and pumas. Cats infected with FIV have a reduced ability to fight off infections as the disease progressively disables the immune system, culminating in feline AIDS which is similar to human AIDS.
Symptoms of FIV
Cats with FIV will show a range of symptoms as the disease progresses and impedes normal immune function. Some of these include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Mouth and gum disease
- Hair loss and poor coat condition
- Respiratory, urinary tract, eye and skin infections
- Persistent diarrhoea and vomiting
- Nervous system problems
- Cancer (bumps, lumps and sores that don’t heal)
Symptoms vary depending on which stage the disease is in. In some cases, the cat will need to be hospitalised immediately while other times it can continue living at home.
Stages of the Disease
FIV attacks the cells of the immune system, eventually leading to feline AIDS. This compromises the ability to fight off secondary bacterial, fungal, viral and protozoal infections. The disease develops over three stages:
- Acute – FIV is carried to the regional lymph nodes once it is in the body. It replicates white blood cells before spreading to other lymph nodes. During this stage, acute illnesses manifest as fever, swollen lymph nodes and lethargy. Symptoms can sometimes go unnoticed for weeks.
- Latent – This stage can last several years and during this time, the cat can appear normal and healthy. However, the disease is still destroying white blood cells, undermining the functioning of the immune system.
- Final – Once FIV destroys enough white blood cells, the cat’s immune system is unable to fight off opportunistic infections that arise from the infectious pathogens cats are exposed to daily. This turns otherwise harmful ailments into medical emergencies.
Feline AIDS is often the outcome of an FIV infection, however, some cats may never develop feline AIDS, which is the end stage of the virus after a long latency period.
How to Prevent Feline AIDS
FIV is present in the cat’s saliva in large quantities, but they cannot become infected via mutual grooming. The virus has been transmitted to kittens from mothers and through sexual intercourse, however this is rare. The most common mode of transmission is deep bite wounds that occur during fighting.
The biggest risk factor is free roaming cats, particularly males who are more likely to get into fights. The best way to prevent a cat from catching FIV is to keep them indoors. Desexing your cat also helps reduce their risk. There is a vaccine for FIV, however it is not fully effective, with studies showing a 56 per cent protection rate.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the FIV virus. Once there is immunodeficiency present and your cat has developed Feline AIDS, treatment is aimed at stopping infections and providing supportive care until the disease is fatal or your cat needs to be euthanised. Keep in mind that FIV-positive cats can live a happy life for many years.
Specialist Veterinary Services in Sydney
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