Feline AIDS a common disease in cats

Lisa Goudy
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Approximately two in 10 feral cats in Saskatchewan have feline AIDS (FIV).

The Moose Jaw Humane Society is nearly at cat capacity.

“Certainly we have become aware of how frequent the disease is in Saskatchewan,” said Dr. Bob Bellamy, veterinarian at the Bellamy Harrison Animal Hospital. “Now roughly about 15 per cent of the cats that have been submitted this summer have tested positive for feline AIDS. That’s quite an alarming statistic.”

He said those cats spread the disease to other wild cats and house pets allowed to be outside.

A feral cat with FIV can spread it to other wild cats and house pets allowed to be outdoors. The virus has no effect on humans, but is contagious and fatal to cats with no effective treatment.

“It is a bit of a difficult disease to diagnose,” said Bellamy. “Initially after they’re infected, there are virtually no symptoms, but it causes depression of the immune system so the infected animal will develop a variety of infections and have real trouble fighting them off.”

Those infections could include abscesses from fights and respiratory infections. Death typically occurs within a few years after the cat gets FIV.

“It’s very similar to AIDS in people that because it depresses the immune system many of these animals will develop a variety of cancer and eventually die as a result of the cancer,” said Bellamy. “Of course their immune system is not in a state where it can fight off the cancerous cells.”

There is a recent FIV vaccine, which is used at the Bellamy Harrison Animal Hospital. It involves three vaccines and yearly boosters, especially if the cat spends time outside.

“One of the problems with vaccinating the cat is that once you vaccinate a house pet ... in the future it will test positive for FIV,” said Bellamy. “So the other thing we recommend people do if they vaccinate the cat is that we place a microchip in them and this microchip allows us to identify or track down the owner of that cat.”

He said many humane societies in North America test cats for FIV. If tested positive, the shelter will put the cat to sleep or adopt the cats out to households with FIV cats in them if the cats are kept as “totally indoor cats,” he said.

“It’s primarily transmitted among cats through biting and, of course, feral cats tend to fight a great deal, both with other feral cats and house cats that move in to their territory. Cats are very territorial and it spreads really easily through bites,” said Bellamy.

He said the Moose Jaw organization that traps wild cats, submits them to the vets to be spayed, neutered, vaccinated and tested for feline AIDS and then releases them back into the wild is the Stray Cat Rescue and Protection Society (SCRAPS).

He said feral cats breed quickly and while they do eat lots of mice, mature female cats are either pregnant, mothering kittens or in heat, which they will remain in until the cat is pregnant.

He said studies show where there are organizations such as SCRAPS in Moose Jaw, the population of wild cats is reduced by 50 per cent.

“(SCRAPS) is I believe a really useful program,” said Bellamy. “(The cats are) released back to where they were caught because cats are very territorial they prevent other fertile cats from moving into the area and reproducing.”

Follow Lisa Goudy on Twitter @lisagoudy.


Organizations: Bellamy Harrison Animal Hospital, Stray Cat Rescue and Protection Society, Moose Jaw organization

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, North America, Moose Jaw

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Recent comments

  • Marie-Odile Fortier
    September 26, 2013 - 20:34

    As a volunteer for FIV Cat Rescue and an owner to three FIV+ cats, I am extremely disappointed in how many myths have made it into this article in lieu of actual facts about FIV. 1. FIV is not feline AIDS. Feline AIDS is an end stage that many FIV+ cats do not reach because they continue to live healthy lives without serious compromise to their immune system. 2. FIV is not comparable to HIV in humans, which requires consistent maintenance with medications. 3. For the same reasons above, FIV is not usually "fatal to cats." Most FIV+ cats can live long, healthy lives without any additional veterinary care compared to non-FIV cats. 4. The only way those FIV+ cats outside are spreading the disease to other cats is through deep, penetrating bites. Not through casual contact or even playful bites. Thus, it is not easily transmitted among cats that are properly introduced and/or spayed/neutered. 5. If an FIV+ cat experiences secondary infections due to lowered immunity, the cat can still fight back if treatment is started on a prompt basis. My FIV+ housecats have easily fought off infrequent and small infections throughout the years thanks to proper veterinary care. 6. Death does not typically occur within a few years after the cat gets FIV! There are numerous studies and personal experiences that easily debunk this myth. I know fellow cat owners whose cats who have lived over a decade after testing FIV+. 7. The FIV vaccine is a very poor choice of prevention for cats. A cat will always test positive for FIV antibodies with this vaccine. Thus, if a cat is lost and a shelter picks him up and tests him, they may believe he truly has FIV and may even kill the cat. This is common practice in Kansas, for example. Unless you can be assured that your local shelter would check for microchips and that the cat owner keeps the information on the microchip up to date, vaccinating a cat against FIV puts that cat at risk. Please update your article to prevent the spread of misinformation about FIV, and feel free to contact me with further questions about the points above.