How many of you have taken your kitty into the vet and had the veterinarian (or someone else at the clinic) bring up the notion of doing SNAP testing on their furry feline? Calling it SNAP testing is a quicker way to talk about it since the diseases we are testing for when we do it are a bit of a mouthful! The two in question are:
FIV: Feline Immunodeficiency Virus FeLV: Feline Leukeumia Virus
As a veterinarian, I often find this discussion to be a tough one to have with clients. I am sure that a couple of questions immediately run through their heads:
1. Why should I test them for some random disease? There is nothing about them that suggests that they are sick!
2. Isn’t this overkill when I’m already spending all this money on having them examined and vaccinated, and they seem fine?
3. What are the chances they would have either of these diseases if I just got this cat from someone who only had other healthy cats?
These are all completely reasonable questions, but not ones that people ask out loud very often, so I’m hoping to explain this a bit to help people understand the importance of testing for these diseases, especially if you are bringing a new kitty into your loving household <3
First I will tell you a bit about each disease. Let’s start with FIV.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is often referred to as “kitty AIDS”, and this is not a bad comparison. The correct comparison would be to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), as opposed to AIDS, but the virus itself behaves very similarly to HIV in people. Important to note though: YOU CANNOT CONTRACT FIV OR HIV FROM YOUR CAT. It is only contagious between cats, as it is a feline version of the virus. FIV is transmitted between cats via fighting/biting, blood transfusions that weren’t checked for FIV, or sexually.
A cat being FIV positive means, in simple terms, that your cat has a weakened immune system at all times, and just as is the case with HIV in humans, FIV can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) as a result. This means your kitty is more sensitive to bacteria, viruses, parasites, and just getting sick in general. It also means that they are not very good at fighting off these illnesses, since their immune system is sub-par. It can potentially mean that your kitty’s life is shortened, but nowadays lots of FIV+ cats are able to lead long full lives with the disease with proper monitoring and with some adjustments made to their lifestyle. This is one of the reasons why it is good to test for it, but I’ll summarize more of that at the end J There is no cure for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is often referred to as simply “Feline Leukemia”, which makes it sound a bit like it is another way of saying cancer, but FeLV is NOT the same as regular “Leukemia”, per se. Feline Leukemia Virus predisposes your kitty to developing leukemia (among many other diseases), but it is not the same thing as leukemia. Much like FIV, FeLV is also a virus that results in a very compromised immune system in your kitty. It also is known to specifically predispose kitties to developing various types of cancer. Once again, it is by no means transmissible to humans, but it is far more contagious between cats than FIV. FeLV is spread via saliva so even sharing the same food or water dish as an FeLV+ cat could result in another cat becoming infected as well.
There is no cure for Feline Leukemia Virus, but it is possible sometimes for a cat to become transiently infected, and for their body to manage to clear the virus. During the time that they are temporarily infected, they are still able to transmit the virus to other cats, and they will still test positive on a “SNAP” test. If there is concern that they may be transiently infected, a more involved form of testing can be done, or the SNAP test can be repeated several weeks later since they will normally clear the virus within 16 weeks if they are going to do so.
Summary and Comparisons
So as you can see, these diseases are pretty serious stuff. And if the infected cat is not currently suffering from a secondary consequence of the virus, they may seem like a completely normal cat. This is why screening is so important. I am going to highlight a couple key differences between the viruses, and then fill you in on some things you should do differently if you find out you have a “positive” cat.
Transmission: FIV is transmitted primarily through bite wounds, so does not spread as readily through households, but tends to spread rapidly outdoors since outdoor cats often scrap with one another. The risk of spread in a household is increased with the addition of new cats since this will often spark conflict between existing household members. FeLV can spread much more rapidly both in households and in the outdoor cat population since it is spread through saliva. This means it can spread through grooming, sharing food and water dishes, sneezing, etc. It would also spread through the same methods as FIV (biting).
Consequences of Disease: Both diseases result in immunosuppression and cause your cat to be more susceptible to any illness or infection they may encounter. Feline Leukemia has the added common consequence of predisposing to different types of cancer, particularly leukemia and lymphoma. Both diseases allow the possibility of your cat living a long and full life, but require increased monitoring and some lifestyle changes in order to increase the chances of this. Both diseases have the possibility of drastically shortening your cat’s life if they suffer from secondary disease as a consequence of their infection.