FIV – Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
An FIV-positive diagnosis is not an automatic death sentence for a cat, nor does caring for an FIV+ cat carry any risk to the caregiver. Find out what FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) is, how it is transmitted, and what the treatment options are for this relatively uncommon viral disease in cats.
What is FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and How is it Transmitted?:
FIV (Feline Immumodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus in the same family as the human AIDS virus, with a few significant differences. It is estimated that in the United States, 2% of cats are infected with the FIV virus. Saliva to blood (deep biting wounds) is generally accepted as the primary source of spreading the virus. Transmission by casual contact is much rarer, although not completely ruled out. Another, less common means of transmission is from the mother cat (Queen) to her kittens during gestation, during birth, or by nursing.
How is FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) Diagnosed?:
In the case of my own FIV+ cat, Shannon, the fact that his white cell count had dropped significantly during treatment for a severe bladder infection, was an indication for the FIV/FELV blood tests.
The initial test was the ELISA, which tests both for FIV antibodies and FeLV. Since there can be false positives with the ELISA test, an initial positive for FIV is followed up by a laboratory test, such as the Western Blot test, which confirms that antibodies to FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) are present in the blood.
At-risk cats (those who go outdoors) should be tested annually. All new cats should be tested before bringing them into the home, but kittens should not be tested before six months, because newborn kittens can show “false positive” antibodies from the mother cat.
How is FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) Prevented?:
Keep Cats Indoors
Most undiagnosed FIV+ cats are ferals, and to prevent deep biting wounds incurred by fights with these cats, owned cats must not be allowed to roam free. This is the only sure way of preventing this disease in a cat.
Although an FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) vaccine has been developed, it is not recommended for a number of reasons.
- It does not protect from all strains of the FIV virus (feline immunodeficiency virus)
- It can result in VAS (vaccine-associated carcinomas)
- It can result in a false positive test for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), putting cats in danger of euthanization if picked up by animal control
How is FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) Treated?:
While FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) cannot be cured, it can be managed, in a program of cooperation between veterinarian and the owner. For cats with no other symptoms, and otherwise generally good health, this might simply be a matter of ensuring he gets a sound diet, possibly with added vitamins, anti-oxidants, and Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as prompt, aggressive treatment of infections and other conditions as they crop up. Even flea control is important, as fleas transmit a number of other parasites such as the Haemabartonella. Also, flea bites themselves can become infected, which would be a cause for concern.
Other, more homeopathic treatments may include Interferon, which helps by stimulating the production of certain types of immune system cells needed to help keep the virus under control.
Joel Kehler, whose cat, Bud, was FIV+, did a ton of research which culminated in his own therapy program which ultimately involved a “cocktail” of five herbs. Kehler documented his early experimental treatments in a guest article on this site, and the full story may be found on his ” Bud’s FIV Therapy” web site.
FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) is NOT a Death Sentence for Cats:
It is important to realize that a positive test for FIV(feline immunodeficiency virus) is not a mandatory death sentence. With a high protein diet and aggressive treatment of secondary infections, an FIV-positive cat can lead a reasonably normal life span. Dr. Mike Richards says, “Feline immundeficiency virus infection does not lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in cats as often as human immunodeficiency virus leads to AIDS in people.”
The largest threat to FIV-positive cats is secondary infection, such as bladder, skin, and upper respiratory infections. Kidney failure is also frequently seen in cats with FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus). These secondary infections should be treated promptly and aggressively in any cat, but especially with an FIV+ cat.
My Shannon was not diagnosed until the age of 18, and he lived a reasonably normal life for another full year. One piece of advice bolstered me during that time. A very dear friend told me, “Franny, remember that Shannon does not know that he is sick.” Please keep that thought in mind if you find yourself caring for an FIV+ cat.
Aggressive Treatment for an FIV+ Cat
Bud, an FIV+ cat, has been kept alive with a combination of drugs used to treat HIV and OTC supplements. The result has been total measurable viral suppression, to the extent that in his latest test, the viral load was so low that FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) was not detected. Read his remarkable story by Joel Kehler, Bud’s human caregiver.
My fourteen year-old red tabby, Bud, may have a deadly disease, but in one important respect, he is a very lucky cat. Other chronic viral diseases are also visited upon unfortunate felines with lethal results: feline leukemia virus, for instance, and feline infectious peritonitis, thought to be caused by a mutation of the otherwise less destructive feline coronavirus. Neither of these viruses, however, has first cousins in the world of human diseases that scientists around the world have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and untold hours of research to find therapies for.
Bud is infected with the feline immunodeficiency virus, the kitty counterpart of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Bud and the constantly evolving therapy that keeps him alive have appeared in this venue several times in something over a year’s time. His first appearance on About.com chronicled the use of HIV drugs to keep him alive. These are the medicines that most people think of as the fruit of the vast, ongoing research to treat HIV infection. His second appearance announced a test result from September 2003 that continues to astonish me to this day: total measurable viral suppression using over- the- counter supplements.
Now, having already confounded the odds once, Bud has done it again. In early February of this year, at the eight-month mark of his program of supplements, he tested negative a second time for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), This does not mean that he has thrown off the disease, but rather that the virus in his bloodstream has been reduced to numbers too low to detect either as free virus or as “provirus” (that is, virus already integrated into his DNA for eventual replication). The moving force of this happy event is a mix of herbal and nonherbal agents whose use was suggested not by veterinary but by human medicine–specifically, the exhaustive search going on worldwide for ammunition in the war against AIDS. This is Bud’s “HIV Connection.”
HIV research has shown that very ordinary and widely available substances can have a measurable impact on the virus. A recent study of a group of women in Africa, for instance, confirmed that supplementation with vitamins C and E, on average, delayed progression to the AIDS -stage of HIV infection. Now it is true that HIV and FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), though near relations, are distinct diseases, and that cats and humans are different creatures, with distinct biochemistries. But part of this result has been documented by Japanese veterinary researchers, who showed that vitamin C significantly inhibited FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) replication. Both vitamins are potent antioxidants, substances which HIV research has shown have the ability to inhibit activation of embedded provirus and better enable the immune system to regulate its internal workings in the face of the virus’s ability to turn it against itself.
Visitors to Bud’s website, where his therapy is detailed and constantly updated, contact me from time to time and express interest in a success achieved with what they see as entirely “natural” products and dismay at the sheer number of them that it seems to be taking to produce the result! Well, Bud has been remarkably accommodating in that regard. But most cats, I would think, could be induced in some way to take in an appropriate daily dosage of a few vitamins–and perhaps a few other antioxidants. HIV research has also suggested the value of such antioxidants as carnatine, an amino acid, and n-acetylcysteine (NAC), a form of the amino acid cysteine. Both have shown an ability to promote production of a vital cell-protective substance called glutathione peroxidase, as well as prevent the loss of otherwise healthy immune cells to “apoptosis,” a form of cellular suicide provoked by viral particles or by virally skewed immune response. The effectiveness of NAC in lowering FIV populations has been demonstrated by the same research that affirmed the value of vitamin C, and at least one German veterinary researcher has given a strong endorsement of carnatine.
Could regular supplementation with such agents delay progression of FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) infection to the AIDS stage? I can’t say with any certainty. I can say that I very much sympathize with the person whose cat’s disease is still in its asymptomatic stage and who is routinely told by veterinarians that there is nothing that will stave off the development of AIDS. Such certainty when so little has even been tried in any systematic way!
An even larger potential payoff for FIV-infected cats to emerge from HIV research lies in the area of herbal supplements with antiviral potential. I can’t help but be reminded of the old film Edison, the Man, which portrayed Thomas Edison’s ransacking of the mineral world to find something that would act as an effective filament for his would-be lightbulb without going “poof” as soon as the current was turned on. Even the human hair was auditioned! An astounding array of natural substances have been tested to see if they might in any way inhibit the growth of HIV. Although most of the testing has been done in cultured cell lines rather than in living beings, an impressive number of substances–some of them quite ordinary–show action against some stage of the viral replication process. Did you know that the common oregano you sprinkle on your pizza contains a substance, rosmarinic acid, that has the ability to interrupt HIV replication? (And so, of course, does the rosemary on your lamb!) Or that the aloe in your hand cream has an antiviral action that has been documented in FIV-infected cats?
If only a quarter or a third of these herbs were effective against the feline AIDS virus, the pool of available candidates would be impressively large. For owners of cats already suffering symptoms of FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) infection, having something to resort to in addition to antibiotics and palliatives that treat the symptoms of the disease, but leave the disease itself untouched, would be a blessing. And while it is true that unrefined herbs contain limited amounts of antiviral chemicals, Bud’s experience suggests that their potency shouldn’t be underestimated.
Bud’s good fortune shouldn’t be seen as a wholesale endorsement of indiscriminate supplementing of cats with every product under the sun promising some potential benefit. Supplements can be dangerous as well as helpful, particularly in creatures other than those they have been tested in. And finding optimal but safe dosages can be a particular problem. All over the world, people with HIV are experimenting with supplements as adjuncts or alternatives to standard HIV drugs. Their collective experience and their ability to report via the internet on their general health and, in the developed world at least, on their virus and immune-cell counts provide something like guidelines that are largely missing with FIV-infected cats.
The HIV connection has been a source of good fortune for Bud, and I hope it will be for other cats, as well. “Bud’s FIV Therapy,” (the website devoted to Bud’s care) features an epigraph borrowed (with one slight modification) from the poet Dante. At the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno is the famous and chilling warning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” At the entrance to Bud’s cyberlair are the words . . . well, I’ll leave that to the curious to discover.
Guide’s Caveat: Each individual cat’s medical situation is different. Caregivers should work in partnership with their veterinarians in treating their cats with non-traditional methods, such as herbal supplements, so that results can be measured.