Saturday, January 22, 2011

FIV-positive cats can lead long, healthy lives

In the quest to achieve No-Kill (applying the same criteria a loving pet guardian or conscientious veterinarian would apply when deciding a shelter animal's fate), one of the challenges YHS must overcome is the widespread belief in many myths regarding shelter animals.

The fact is some shelter animals have issues. Equally true is the fact that these issues are seldom the animal's fault and they can almost always be resolved. Knowingly adopting an animal with special needs is one of the noblest acts you will ever perform; you are truly saving a life.

Let me give you an example of a myth responsible for unnecessarily killing far too many animals: "cats infected with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) should be euthanized." The truth is FIV cats often live long, healthy lives with no symptoms at all.

FIV is an endemic disease found in domestic cats worldwide; it is a lentivirus, meaning it progresses slowly, gradually affecting a cat's immune system. Cats are typically infected through a serious bite, usually inflicted by a stray male cat - earning it the moniker the "fighting cat" disease (a good reason for keeping your cat indoors).

The most well-known lentivirus in humans is HIV - but there are major differences between FIV and HIV. HIV cannot infect cats and FIV cannot infect humans - in fact, there is no evidence that FIV has ever infected a human in the 6,000 years humans and cats have lived together.

The fear concerning FIV cats came to my attention recently when YHS rescued a loving 3-year-old American shorthair named Pushkin. Pushkin was surrendered by a family not because of his disease, but because they were moving out of state and sadly could not afford to take him along. Pushkin is so sweet that staff fell in love with him and tried earnestly to find him a new home. However, when potential adopters learn Pushkin has FIV, they immediately lose interest in him.

Being the proud guardian of an FIV cat named Oliver who lives happily with my other cat, Beau Bentley, I am distressed by the apprehension I find among so many cat lovers regarding FIV.

As long as FIV cats are not exposed to diseases their immune system can't handle, they can live relatively normal lives. When kept indoors, as all cats should, health risks are significantly reduced. FIV is not easily passed between cats either. It cannot be spread casually - in litter boxes, water or food bowls, or when snuggling and playing. It requires a serious bite to transmit the disease.

Before we knew FIV existed, shelters routinely placed these cats into loving homes where they often lived long, normal lives. With the discovery of FIV in 1986 came an undeserved stigma that has since made placing them unduly difficult.

Dr. Susan Cotter, professor of hematology and oncology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, is helping counteract these misinformed fears. "I would not advise getting rid of a cat that tests positive for FIV," she says. "If the cat is young and healthy, it could be years before anything changes."

Best Friends Animal Society veterinarian Dr. Virginia Clemans says "the one important thing is to keep your FIV cat healthy."

That, of course, is good advice for all cats. In fact, the very advice we offer FIV cat owners is equally appropriate for all cats. That is, all cats should be kept as healthy as possible; kept indoors and free from stress; fed a high-quality diet; and medical problems should be treated as soon as they arise.

If you already own a cat, ask your veterinarian about early detection to help maintain your cat's health and to help prevent the spread of this infection to other cats.

Although many FIV cats live long, happy lives, some may need periodic medical care or ongoing medical management. This is why adopting a special-needs animal is such a noble and selfless act. If you can find the room in your heart and home for Pushkin, or a cat like him, please contact YHS - because every animal counts.

Eb Boks is the Executive Director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21