Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

I was recently consulted about finding a home for a 15-year old FIV-positive cat I will call Mazzy. Due to situations beyond their control the cat’s owner was moving in with a family member who also had a cat. The family member’s vet told him that his cat could not live with Mazzy because she would spread the virus. When she heard this, Mazzy’s owner started looking for a shelter to place her senior cat in the final years of her life. Situations like this happen every day, and it breaks my heart. If more people knew the truth, hopefully fewer cats would end up in shelters, or worse, euthanized because of something like FIV.

I first learned about  Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV,  in 2006 when I started interning at a local cats only shelter in Chicago. This shelter was one of the few who did not immediately euthanize a cat who tested positive for FIV. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is the feline equivalent of HIV. According to Cornell Feline Health Center, FIV “attacks the immune system, leaving the cat vulnerable to many other infections.”  Cats with FIV tend to have some serious dental issues, which can lead to other major health issues down the line. FIV cats are more susceptible to other diseases; Something like a cold can become much more serious much quicker in FIV-positive cats. Otherwise FIV-positive cats are just like any other cat.

FIV is transmitted between cats through deep bite wounds. So if an FIV-positive cat bites another cat and breaks skin, the virus will be transferred to the second cat. According to Cornell, and based on my own experience with FIV cats, FIV is most commonly seen in “free-roaming, aggressive male cats.” The majority of FIV cats we saw at the shelter were toms with big ol’ un-neutered male cheeks. As soon as they were neutered most of them calmed down dramatically.

It was previously believed that the virus could also be passed from mother to nursing kittens, but a 2014 study disproved this idea.   This is huge news for FIV cats everywhere. It means that FIV does not have to be a death sentence for shelter cats. With proper education from their vet and adoption counseling, it also hopefully means that more FIV-positive cats can be adopted into “mixed” homes with FIV-negative cats.  As with all cat introductions, care should be taken to properly introduce the cats. Other than a brief period apart for proper introduction, there is no reason that an FIV-positve cat cannot live with FIV-negative cats


An FIV-positive cat, looking out the window. It is best to keep FIV-positive cats indoors, to prevent the spread of the disease.

The shelter I worked at segregated FIV  cats from the rest of the shelter population. They had their own floor in the shelter. Many people took this as a sign that the cats were contagious, but really it was to keep them healthier. By secluding these cats from general population, they were exposed to fewer germs. All staff and visitors were required to wash their hands upon entering the room and before touching any of the cats.

Some people are concerned about the lifespan of FIV-positive cats. I knew one cat who tested positive for the virus and lived to be close to 20 years. He was adopted into a home where he was fed a balanced diet, received regular vet care and was loved by all. He also happened to live in a home with cats who did not have FIV.

If I ever end up adopting another cat (as opposed to being adopted by/found by a cat) I will look at FIV-positive cats. They are looked over far more frequently than other cats, but are just as loving. Most of them will be low maintenance for the majority of their lives. Or, as low maintenance as any cat can be.



More Resources on FIV-positive cats


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