HIGH RISK OF TRANSMISSION Typically fighting, biting or indeed spitting between cats can lead to the transfer of FIV. Pic: istock
The vet's view
The explosion in the number of wild and feral cats in Ireland in the past 10 years (estimates by the Department of Agriculture suggest north of 250,000 cats) has unfortunately resulted in an equal explosion in the number of domestic cats presenting at Veterinary Clinics with a number of endemic diseases, the most notable and worrying being Feline Immunodeficiency Virus.
FIV is a complex disease similar to its human counterpart (HIV) and is a member of the retrovirus family. Both Lentiviruses, they typically incubate over a number of months to years before causing long term serious disease. As with other immunodeficiency diseases, FIV causes, as the name suggests, prolonged and sustained suppression of the cats immune system leading to the affected patient developing other infections. These infections may be easily dealt with or much more easily treated if the cat was not FIV positive.
FIV is typically spread via saliva so any time there is saliva transfer between a FIV positive cat and another, there is a high risk of disease transmission. Typically fighting, biting or indeed spitting are the means of transfer but there is evidence that shared feeding and drinking bowls also plays a role in spread. Kittens born to FIV positive mothers while not infected in utero, will if suckled be exposed to virus particles in the mothers milk and so this is another means of transmission.
However like other retroviruses, FIV is very fragile and does not survive for long without a host, and this lends itself to being vulnerable to drying sunlight, heat and common disinfectants. (Good news for shared feeding regimes – keeping the environment and feed/water bowls disinfected regularly helps a lot).
It is more commonly spread by entire (non-neutered) males due to their propensity to fight and bite but all wild and feral cats have more of a tendency to engage in this behaviour anyway, especially against domestic cats. FIV as the name suggests, infects the cells of the immune system, initially establishing a foothold in the lymph system when invading T-Lymphocytes and progressing throughout the lymphatic system to infect the whole body. This typically takes months to years to develop with the initial first phase of infection being commonly quite transient and short lived. This is often with only vague, mild to moderate clinical signs such as fever, enlarged lymph nodes, maybe diarrhoea or vomiting. This initial first phase is often following by a more prolonged latent change phase, where the virus secretly develops in the body with little or no clinical signs. Months to years later, the virus can move to a terminal stage when the patient may show signs of more serious and prolonged immunodeficiency disease and cancer.
Diagnosis of FIV is accomplished by a specific blood test using a rapid test kit which most clinics will have in house. However, because the virus typically manifests quite a long latent phase, re-testing on a patient showing a negative initial result but having been bitten or potentially exposed in some way is vital, because a one-off test does not guarantee negativity long-term.
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for FIV in Ireland or indeed a preventative vaccine, unlike some other countries. However, vigilance in terms of dealing with and treating the secondary complications associated with FIV and regular check-ups can go a long way in helping manage this difficult disease. We here at Skeldale have found great results in FIV positive patients that are given Echinacea regularly. FIV is very challenging and owner education and providing as much information as possible does help in the management of this disease also.
Veterinarian Conal Finnerty MRCVS practises at the Skeldale Vet Clinic in Ballinrobe and Belmullet. Follow the clinic on Facebook, or call 094 9541980 or 087 9185350 to make an appointment.