FIV/FeLV Testing - What is it and why do we recommend it?

A very important thing that we are proud to play a role in for the SPCA  in Saint John is testing cats for two prominent viruses that exist in our area. We go to the shelter once per week to test kitties so that adopters can be as sure as possible that they are taking home a healthy cat, or that they are at least aware of the health status of their new family member.

The SNAP tests and blood samples 

The SNAP tests and blood samples 

We are also very excited to introduce you to three beautiful cats currently at the Saint John Animal Rescue League (SPCA). They are looking for homes and are affected by one of these viruses.

Meet Teddy, Lucas, and Champ. They have all been exposed to the FIV virus. We are showing them to you because people may think this makes them unadoptable, but this is far from the truth! They are lovely cats and in the right home, can live long and fantastic lives! Please read below about FIV and the other virus, Feline Leukemia Virus.







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.

Vaccinating: You cannot vaccinate a cat for FIV. There have been vaccines created in the past, but they have not had good results in terms of effectiveness, and also make it more difficult to test for disease as the vaccine interferes with test results. You CAN vaccinate for FeLV. The vaccine is not 100% effective, but is a good preventative measure for cats with risk of exposure.  It does not interfere with testing for the disease.

 So a good way to summarize then is probably to answer the original question of WHY do we want to test when they don’t seem sick, and what are these lifestyle changes I keep referring to throughout this post?!

The question and the answer were both in that paragraph. The reason we want to be screening for positive cats is so that we can take the appropriate steps to allow them to live the longest and healthiest lives possible, even if they do happen to suffer from one of these diseases. 

Lifestyle Changes

If you discover that your cat is positive for one of these diseases, there are a few things you will want to do, with some differences depending on which disease you are dealing with:

1.    Keep your kitty indoors!

-       Two major reasons for this are: avoiding the disease spreading to other cats in the outdoor cat population; and protecting your cat from encountering things that could make them sick since they are immuno-compromised (other sick cats, bad weather, cat fights, etc).

2.    Avoid unnecessary introduction of other cats

-       If you know you have an FIV or FeLV positive cat in your household, “closing” the population is a good idea. One common exception is: if you already have an FIV+ cat, sometimes people will accept another known FIV+ cat into their household since this cat will have a harder time finding a home, but won’t run the risk of being infected by your cat.  However, any big change like this could result in stress, which can cause illness flare ups so it may be best to keep the population closed once you are aware either disease is present. As previously mentioned, FeLV spreads a lot more readily, so more precautions need to be taken if you have one KNOWN FeLV positive cat in your household.  You should test all other cats in your household, and you can do your best to separate cats, and also vaccinate the negative cats as a precaution.  If you have one FIV+ cat in your household, and the others are negative, it is not likely the disease will spread to these other cats unless they are very prone to fighting/biting one another.  

3.    Yes, still vaccinate your cat!

-       You should still vaccinate your cat, with the exception of the fact that there is no value of giving the Feline Leukemia Vaccination to a cat that is FeLV positive. FIV+ cats can still be vaccinated for FeLV, however, and cats positive for either disease can still receive core vaccines as they normally would.

4.    Have frequent veterinary check-ups and act fast when there are signs of illness

-       It is important to watch FIV and FeLV+ cat’s health a little more closely in order to catch things early. Since their immune systems are not as good as your average cat, illnesses can progress more rapidly. Blood work screening and general check-ups one to two times per year are a great idea when possible.

5.    Stay on top of parasite control

-       It is even more important than it is in regular cats to stay on top of deworming and flea protocols, as FIV and FeLV positive cats are more likely to become stressed and rundown when dealing with parasite infestations. 

6.    Stick to regular diets – no raw

-       There are lots of pathogens that naturally exist on raw meat, and our immune-compromised furry friends are not able to deal with them in the way that other “normal” animals may be able to. It is important to stay away from these types of diets in FIV and FeLV+ cats.

7.    Keep stress low

-       Whatever you can do to keep things low stress for kitties with these diseases will help them to lead longer healthier lives. It’s just like how we are more likely to get colds and flus when we are stressed, only they have an added layer of likelihood to get sick!

That may seem like a lot of instructions, but it is a small price to pay to follow these guidelines if it means that your cat may get to lead an almost completely normal life! I believe, also, that it explains why it is such an important thing to know the FIV and FeLV status of your cats. It may feel like a bit of a financial burden at the time, but the test is quick and easy, and could prevent a lot of issues down the road if you know ahead of time that you are dealing with one of these diseases. 

A very relaxed Teddy

A very relaxed Teddy

One wonderful and important thing around here in Saint John, NB, is that our local SPCA Animal Rescue tests ALL of their cats before they are adopted out to homes! We at Seaside Home Veterinary Care actually go right to the shelter ourselves to perform the testing, so that you can be assured when you adopt a kitty from there that you are not introducing either of these viruses into your household! It is an amazing thing that they do this, and one more reason to choose to adopt your next furry friend from the SPCA!  

The SPCA also occasionally is in search of good homes that have no cats, who are willing to adopt FIV+ cats.  Since this disease does not spread nearly as easily, occasionally we will come across them coming into the shelter and love to have the option to find a no-cat household for these cats to call their own.   Please let them know if you would be open to being informed if we came across a cat like this :).

This blog post may be a bit of an information overload, but hopefully it helped to explain anything you may have been wondering about these diseases! Please let us know, however, if you have any more questions or would like to talk about having your own cats tested for FIV or FeLV!