5 Things You Should Know If You're Thinking About Adopting a Cat With FIV

Sallie Mae, an FIV-positive cat who's won over Dr. Patty Khuly.

Last November, Sallie Mae showed up in a box in front of a house around the corner from mine. The couple whose front lawn she’d been left on quickly brought her plight to my attention.

So I did what any other sucker with 24-hour access to a veterinary facility would do: I took the tricolor kitty to work so I could clean her up and check her out.

Three things immediately became apparent: She’d already been spayed (yay!), hookworms and fleas really loved living off her blood (boo!), and somewhere along the way she’d become infected with FIV, feline immunodeficiency virus (OMG!).

The FIV thing is a really big deal in the world of feline adoptions. It’s one of the nonnegotiable items on everyone’s checklist. And I get it. I’d never begrudge anyone the right to own this sentiment: “I do not want to fall in love with an adorable animal if she’s got a scary virus! And much less a disease that might make my other cats sick.”

But FIV-positive cats aren’t usually as hard to manage as everyone thinks, so here are five things that everyone should know when thinking about adopting one of these kitties. And everyone should, at least, consider it.

1. Much like HIV in humans, FIV attacks the cat’s immune system. This is why FIV-positive felines tend to develop illnesses related to secondary infections — not necessarily because of the virus itself.

2. FIV is absolutely and unequivocally not contagious among humans!

3. The feline viral infection is, however, contagious among cats. The most common form of transmission is via bites and, less commonly, through sexual contact. This means that passive, sterilized cats only rarely get the disease — and it's usually when they're challenged by aggressive cats to a duel.

4. A cat can be infected with FIV for many years without showing any symptoms. In fact, some will never show any signs of the disease, and a significant portion can go on to live normal lifespans.

5. A vaccine is available to prevent FIV in other household cats. Unfortunately, the vaccine’s effects can't be differentiated from the disease during testing. In other words, vaccinated cats will forever come up positive, whether they are or not. Nonetheless, owners with FIV-negative indoor cats (an FIV-positive cat should never receive the vaccine) are often offered this option.

A series of two vaccines are required for the initial immunization, followed by a yearly booster. FIV-negative cats should be vaccinated weeks before bringing the FIV-positive cat into the household (consult with your vet about proper timing), and FIV-positive cats should be kept indoors to prevent them from getting into fights with outdoor cats and transmitting the disease to them. All vaccinated cats should also be microchipped for quick identification of ownership and vaccination status should they ever become lost.

Although it’s true that FIV may or may not shorten Sallie Mae’s life, it can downgrade her quality of life, because even if she never shows symptoms related to the disease, the possibility that she can transmit the disease to healthy cats through bites makes finding her a forever home difficult.

This is why Sallie Mae has languished in a cage for months now at my veterinary hospital. Sure, she’s loved and well cared for, but life is a little limited.

The other problem is that not everyone is comfortable with her being here. We already have one house cat (appropriately named Grumpy), so keeping another one isn’t exactly condoned by the hospital’s final arbiters of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Moreover, Sallie Mae's FIV status means that she can't be a blood donor, which is something that Grumpy does with perfect aplomb — when sedated, of course.

In other words, if I can’t find her a home anytime soon, I fear the end is nigh. So I’m considering taking her on. The trouble is that I’ve already got two cats, and I’d need to find her a secluded area where she wouldn’t be bothered — and, more important, where she wouldn’t be challenged by those who might earn themselves an FIV-laced bite in so doing.

Not that Sallie Mae is aggressive. She’s actually quite the pacifist purr machine. But you never know the lengths to which any given cat will go to lay claim to her territory.

So I have to ask: What would you do? Would you ever consider adopting a needy, FIV-positive kitty?


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