What is FIV in cats? Essential information for cat owners

20 May 2024 - 4 min read
veterinarian holding cat

What's FIV in cats?

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a slow-acting viral infection that weakens a cat’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to other infections. You don't need to panic if your cat is tested positive for FIV.

Whilst it can be life-threatening, with the right treatment, affected cats can live long, happy lives.

Is FIV in cats similar to HIV in humans?

Whilst there are a few similarities between FIV and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), there are a few important distinctions:

Aspect FIV in cats HIV in humans
Virus types Lentivirus - a kind of slow-acting virus that gradually affects the body over a long period. Lentivirus - a kind of slow-acting virus that gradually affects the body over a long period.
Affected species Cats only - no evidence to suggest FIV can infect other species Humans only - no evidence to suggest HIV can infect other species
Transmission Mainly through bite wounds - but can be spread through blood Various, including body fluids
Progression Slow, over years Can be rapid without treatment
Treatment General lifestyle adjustments Antiretroviral therapy

How do cats get FIV?

Aggressive kittens

Cats can contract FIV primarily through deep bite wounds where the virus-containing saliva enters the bloodstream. 

It’s commonly spotted in unneutered males who might fight about territory. Many veterinarians recommend cats get neutered early on as it reduces a male cat’s urge to mate, roam and fight.

Outdoor cats and those in multi-cat households are also at higher risk of catching the infection. 

Factors that increase a cat’s risk of contracting FIV

Are cats born with FIV?

It’s rare, but kittens can contract FIV from an infected mother during passage through the birth canal or through infected milk.

Some kittens can clear the infection before they turn six months old.

Common myths about FIV transmission

Myth: FIV-positive cats should be isolated or euthanised.

Fact: Cats with FIV can live harmoniously with other cats and have a normal lifespan if they are properly cared for and monitored for secondary infections

Myth: FIV is similar to HIV in humans and can be transmitted to humans or other animals.

FIV is a species-specific virus that only affects cats. Humans and other animals cannot contract FIV from a cat.

Myth: FIV-positive cats are always sickly and have a shortened life expectancy.

Fact: Many FIV-positive cats remain in good health for years. Proper veterinary care and a stress-free environment can help maintain their health.

Myth: Antibiotics and other common medications can cure FIV.

Fact: There is currently no cure for FIV. However, the focus is on managing symptoms and preventing secondary infections to ensure a good quality of life for FIV-positive cats.

Symptoms of FIV

Common skin problems in cats. Cat scratching or licking themselves due to itchiness. A balding area of fur, with obvious hair loss

The infection can be slow to take effect - taking a few years to show clear signs and symptoms. A few to look out for include:

  1. Frequent illness with long recovery times

  2. Lethargy

  3. Enlarged lymph nodes

  4. Weight loss, or loss of appetite

  5. Poor coat condition

  6. Anaemia

  7. Dental disease

If you suspect your pet is showing signs of FIV, it might be time to check in with your veterinarian.

Common methods for diagnosing FIV

Whilst it may be tough to guess whether your cat has FIV in the first place, it’s easy enough for vets to test for it in-clinic. Tests for FIV include:

  • ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test - a simple test that searches for certain antibodies or infectious agents within a fluid sample from your cat.

  • Western blot test - a blood test that detects specific proteins to verify if a cat has been infected with FIV.

  • PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test - detects the DNA of the virus itself, allowing for early and accurate identification of the infection in cats.

Treatment options

Young Hispanic female cat owner sitting and waiting for her appointment with the vet. She has a beautiful gray cat in a cage.

Owning or considering the adoption of an FIV-positive cat doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a fulfilling, joyful life. However, it does require a slightly different approach to care compared to a non-infected cat.

Managing FIV symptoms with your vet

There is no cure for FIV, but supportive care can help manage symptoms and maintain quality of life. 

Regular veterinary check-ups

These are crucial for monitoring the health status of an FIV-positive cat. Most importantly, they can help catch and treat secondary infections early (which FIV cats are more susceptible to).

Preventative care is often best.

Spaying & neutering

As mentioned previously, this is recommended to reduce the risk of spreading the virus through aggressive behaviour.

Dental care

Support dental hygiene with daily brushing and professional dental care to prevent dental diseases, which are common in FIV-positive cats.

Vaccinations & parasite control. 

Keep up with vaccinations and regular flea and worm control to protect against common diseases and parasites.

Managing cat FIV symptoms at home

Here are some simple tips that you can follow when living with an FIV-positive cat.

Stress reduction 

Minimising stress is important as it can weaken an already compromised immune system. Consider how you can provide a calm and stable environment for your cat, maintaining regular routines and creating safe spaces for the cat to retreat to.

Quality diet 

Feed a high-quality, balanced diet to support the immune system. There are lots of general recommendations we could make here, but it's best to fetch bespoke advice from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for your pet’s specific needs.

Clean environment

Maintaining a generally clean, hygienic space reduces the cat’s exposure to nasty infections. Make sure to regularly clean food and water dishes, litter boxes and bedding.

Quick response to illness

Contact your vet promptly if you notice any signs of illness, as FIV-positive cats may not recover as quickly from infections.

Pet insurance

Inform your pet insurance company about your cat’s FIV status, as this is considered a pre-existing condition.

Prevention and vaccination

Grey senior cat eats dry food from a green bowl against a white brick wall. An adult pet with green eyes at a plate of cat food. Ten year old pet

Currently, there is no widely approved vaccine for FIV. As it stands, the current vaccine is considered controversial amongst animal health professionals due to inconsistent results.

The best prevention is to keep cats indoors and avoid contact with FIV-infected cats. In the UK, most shelters will let you know if a cat is FIV-positive, requiring a single-cat household.

How to prevent the spread of FIV to other cats

To prevent the spread of FIV to other cats, keep FIV-positive cats indoors to avoid contact with uninfected cats and neuter them to reduce aggressive behaviours. 

Experts often recommend that FIV-positive cats should be the only ones in the household. Although only deep bites transmit FIV - and not via sharing food or other daily interactions - there's always a risk that the positive cat may infect another in the home.

Regular vet check-ups can also help monitor health and prevent transmission.

Adoption and care of FIV-positive cats

FIV-positive cats can live long and healthy lives with proper care - it truly isn’t a death sentence! They can be great companions and deserve loving homes.

Keep them indoors and maintain a good relationship with your vet to keep on top of any potential infections. Other than that, your cat has the same needs as any other! Plenty of playtime, a healthy lifestyle, and lots of love.

FIV and insurance

If you adopt a cat with FIV, insurers will usually class it as a ‘pre-existing condition’ in your insurance policy. At ManyPets, we have a Pre-existing policy - which includes £1,500 for pre-existing conditions as part of a £7,000 vet fee limit for conditions, where there’s been no treatment, medication or advice for three months. 

Should your cat receive an FIV diagnosis while covered under a ManyPets lifetime cat insurance policy, you can submit claims for treatment expenses as long as your policy is with us.

Our Pre-existing policy can cover recent conditions.

Lewis Martins
Communities marketer

Lewis has worked in pet health since 2017. Before joining ManyPets in 2021, he led content production at VetForum and PetsApp. Lewis has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest vet groups and suppliers to write educational articles for vets and pet parents. His Instagram feed is 60% dogs, 40% cats.