FeLV and FIV: Understanding Feline Retroviruses

By Carol Fellenstein, DVM, Medical Director – Shelter Medicine

At a time when we are feeling confined and restricted, a special group of cats at Animal Friends has gotten a new lease on life.

In February, Animal Friends made exciting changes to our policy on the housing and adoption of cats with the retroviral infections Feline Leukemia (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency (FIV). These changes were based on recently published guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, which states that cats with these diseases can live long, happy lives and pose less of a risk to other cats in the community than originally believed. This report opened the door for Animal Friends and other organizations across the country to place new priorities on finding new homes for these special cats. To understand how important these changes are we must first understand the diseases.

FeLV and FIV are respectively nicknamed the “friendly cat disease” and the “unfriendly cat disease.” These nicknames give us an insight into the way they are transmitted. Both diseases are spread through bodily fluids with saliva being one of the most significant spreaders.

FIV, the “unfriendly” cat disease, is spread through bite wounds that may be inflicted when cats fight. The new guidelines show that it takes the introduction of saliva deep into muscle tissue from a bite for the disease to take hold and that the risk of transmission through routine grooming is small. This new information opens up new options for housing and adopting our FIV positive cats. We now know they can be safely housed next to, or with FIV negative cats as long as the risk of bites from fighting is mitigated.

FeLV is a disease spread through “friendly” cat behavior such as sharing food and water bowls or consensual grooming. It can also be spread from mother to kittens while the kittens are developing in the uterus or through the mother’s milk while nursing. Once inside the body, there are different pathways the disease can follow depending on how the body’s immune system responds to the initial infection.

The two important pathways, or forms, the disease can take are called regressive or progressive infections. A regressive infection means the body’s immune system is strong enough to hold the infection in check but is not able to eliminate it completely from the body. A progressive infection is one where the immune system is not strong enough to do either very effectively. It was once believed that cats with either form of infection would have a poor quality of life which then predetermined their fate.

The new guidelines regarding FeLV positive cats allowed for the greatest change in Animal Friends’ policy. The new research shows that these cats can move between the two forms of infection based on the health of their immune system. They also have the potential to live a normal life span. By placing them in loving homes, we offer them the best opportunity to stay healthy and to enjoy a quality life.

We put our new policy in action with 15 FeLV-positive cats who were rescued by our Humane Investigations team. By removing the stigma that had been placed on these cats in the past, providing education for the adopters and being a resource for veterinarians in the community, we successfully began placing FeLV-positive cats into loving homes!

With the help of science, Animal Friends has been able to expand our mission of finding loving homes to this special group of cats. And this is some good news we can all use right now!

This entry was posted in Animal Friends News. Bookmark the permalink.