Cats: FIV - A Bad Case of Rumors

FIV - A Bad Case of Rumors - article from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

March 9, 2002
Weekly News from the sanctuary

FIV - Catching a Bad Case of Rumors
Despite what many people think, cats with this condition can live
perfectly long, happy, healthy lives.
By Kristi Littrell

I was on my way back to the sanctuary after a family visit in
Colorado. Curled up beside me, purring contentedly, was Reggie, the
cat nobody dared take in. You'd think he was an unexploded bomb or an
X-rated movie.

Make that FIV-rated.

FIV stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. It's a lentivirus,
meaning that it progresses very slowly, gradually affecting a cat's
immune system. It is passed through blood transfusions and through
serious, penetrating bite wounds - mainly by stray, intact tom cats.
The most well-known lentivirus in humans is HIV. But the two are not
at all the same, and you can't get FIV from a cat. In fact, the only
thing about FIV that you can catch is a bad case of the rumors.

Connie was already glazing over. She didn't even want to listen, even
though she wanted the best for Reggie.

Deconstructing Reggie
Reggie is six years old. "I fell in love with him at the shelter and
decided to try to find him a home," said Connie, who had rescued him,
but then became infected by the rumors. "When my vet diagnosed him
with FIV, nobody wanted him."

"How does he get on with other cats?" I asked, innocently.

"My cats have NOT been exposed to him," Connie replied. "So I don't
know how he reacts to other cats."

I started to explain that a friend of mine, Karen Green, has had her
FIV cat, Bentley, living with her other cats for five years, but
Connie was already glazing over. She didn't even want to listen, even
though she wanted the best for Reggie.

Reggie stretched and snoozed some more in the car. And I spent the 12-
hour drive thinking about finding Reggie - and other cats like him -
a good home. When I got back, I went straight to visit Karen.

Bentley - like a Rolls
"I once got a desperate e-mail from an 80-year-old woman," she told
me. "Her only cat had just been diagnosed with FIV. The cat was
perfectly normal and healthy, but her veterinarian had suggested
euthanizing him. The woman was desolated. She asked if we would take
him at Best Friends. I said she should keep him. But it was my word
against the vet's."

(While Karen is talking, Bentley jumps onto her lap. He's a big cat,
with a purr like a Rolls Royce - or maybe a Bentley.)

If you go back 15 years, before anybody tested for FIV, all of these
little guys would be in homes living long, normal lives.

"He was a stray cat who a woman had been putting out food for until
she became incapacitated I took him home myself. He has such
personality. I wasn't surprised when he tested positive for FIV. He
fit the standard high-risk profile - he'd been a large, roaming,
unneutered male."

Bentley continues to be the most mellow and affectionate cat. Kids
love him. So do other cats. Men admire his macho good looks, and with
his paternal instincts, he has helped Karen foster 12 kittens in the
past five years. All of them tested negative for FIV, of course.

"I had a roommate," Karen tells me, "whose vet told her to euthanize
her 12-year-old cat when he was diagnosed with FIV! Big John is now
20 years old and completely blind, but otherwise perfectly healthy!
People are always surprised to see how healthy Bentley is. But that's
the way most of them are!"

She has some happy-ending stories, too, like the letter from a woman
who wrote: "After reading about FIV, I realized that much of the simply unfounded. So I've decided to keep this cat and raise
him with my other cat, Jasmine."

As long as cats with FIV are not exposed to diseases that their
immune system can't handle, they can live perfectly normal lives. And
they can only pass the virus on to other cats through a serious,
penetrating bite wound. So unless your cats at home routinely tear
each other to pieces, it's not a problem. (And if your cats are
tearing each other up, that's probably a bigger problem!)

What's in a name?
Faith Maloney, our director of animal care, has two FIV kitties. "I'd
had Chevalier for four years before I moved house and decided to test
all of my other cats for FIV at the same time. Since they don't
fight, none of the others was FIV positive. I even took in another
FIV kitty last year."

Dennis Cook and Anne Tatom with FIV kitties. There's absolutely no
reason for these wonderful kitties not to be in good homes.

Here at Best Friends, we have two rooms exclusively for FIV
kitties. "They're some of the most gentle and affectionate cats here
at the sanctuary," says Judah Nasr, who's in charge of all the cats
here. Judah thinks the discovery of FIV, about 15 years ago, was a
very mixed blessing. "If you go back 15 years, before anybody tested
for FIV, all of these little guys would be in homes living long,
normal lives. But we've discovered something we can put a name to -
even if the cats never get sick!"

Adopting an FIV cat
Dennis Cook and Anne Tatom live near Seattle, Washington with 17
kitties, seven of whom are FIV positive. Four of those seven came
from Best Friends, and all of them live happily together. Anne enjoys
e-mailing people who are interested in learning more about living
with FIV kitties. "I have been a Best Friends member for years, and I
understand that FIV kitties need a home, too. Sure, you have to be
careful and introduce the new cat properly to the others. But the
cats we adopted from Best Friends - Simon, Malcolm, Sir Lancelot, and
Wink - have blended into my home just fine."

FIV Facts

1. The Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus is a slow virus that affects a
cat's immune system over a period of years.

2. FIV is a cat-only disease and cannot be spread to humans or other

3. FIV cats most often live long, healthy, and relatively normal
lives with no symptoms at all.

4. FIV is not easily passed between cats. It cannot be spread
casually - like in litter boxes, water and food bowls, or when
snuggling and playing. It is rarely spread from a mother to her

5. The virus can be spread through blood transfusions, badly infected
gums, or serious, penetrating bite wounds. (Bite wounds of this kind
are extremely rare, except in free-roaming, unneutered tomcats.)

6. A neutered cat, in a home, is extremely unlikely to infect other
cats, if properly introduced.

7. Many vets are not educated about FIV since the virus was only
discovered 15 years ago.

8. FIV-positive cats should be kept as healthy as possible. Keep them
indoors and free from stress, feed them a high-quality diet, keep and
treat any secondary problems as soon as they arise.

For Anne, it began when she took in a stray kitty she had been
feeding and the vet told her he had FIV. Anne did some research and
chose a veterinarian who was up to date on FIV. Surprisingly, many
are not. When FIV was first discovered, the HIV scare was in high
gear. A lot of vets didn't want to take any chances, so the rule of
thumb was: "FIV cats should immediately be separated from non-
infected cats. If you can't do this in your home, then find a place
that will take them or have them euthanized." No wonder so many
wonderful kitties were coming to Best Friends!

Dissolving old fears
Dr. Susan Cotter, professor of hematology and oncology at Tufts
University School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of those who have
helped dissolve these old fears. "I wouldn't advise getting rid of a
cat that tests positive for FIV," she says. "If the cat is young and
healthy, it could be years before anything changes."

Best Friends veterinarian Dr. Virginia Froehlich says the one
important thing is to keep your FIV cat healthy. (That, of course, is
good advice for all your cats!)

"The virus affects the immune system," she explains. "So keep FIV
cats indoors. Make sure they get regular vaccinations. And give them
a high-quality diet. Keep an eye on them, and take them to the
veterinarian at the first sign of illness."

Am I in the wrong room?
A couple of weeks after I had brought Reggie to the sanctuary, I went
to visit him at the TLC Cat Club. Lezlie Sage, our cat adoption
person, was there, too, trying to decide whom to take on a weekend
mobile adoption trip. "When I first came to work at Best Friends, I
walked into one of our FIV rooms, and I thought I must be in the
wrong room. I didn't know very much back then, and I expected to see
sick cats. But all I saw were healthy ones. Now I know about FIV, and
I know there's absolutely no reason for these wonderful kitties not
to be in good homes."

As Lezlie was talking, sweet Reggie had curled up in my lap and gone
to sleep. I looked around and saw some of the most handsome, healthy
cats you could imagine. A bunch of them were all curled up in a
basket together, grooming each other and purring. The most
comfortable kitties in the world, I thought.

For more information on adopting a big, handsome, affectionate ball
of furry love from the FIV room, visit our Adoption Section or e-mail

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