While it is entertaining & instinctual for your cat to be outside hunting like a regal panther, there are risks involved in letting your feline friend outdoors. Coyotes, stray dogs, hawks, parasites, cars… But what about other cats that are on the prowl?
First let’s talk about kitty communication; cats are pretty independent creatures. We joke about cats not really needing owners as long as they have food, water, & a place to go to the bathroom. If your cat is an outside adventurer, they can be protective of their territory (aka your yard). They may not be so friendly when some other strange cat decides to invade it. That is when we have to worry about diseases like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus & Feline Leukemia.
Now, what is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) & how do they contract it?
Similar to the human strain, HIV, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is a virus that suppresses the immune system. Typically speaking, felines that contract this virus do not die from it but they are at a much higher risk of contracting other diseases & illnesses due to their compromised immune systems. Wounds from bites or scratches can take much longer to heal for FIV+ cats as well, making them more prone to abscesses & secondary infections.
FIV is primarily spread through bite wounds from an already infected cat. The infected cat’s saliva carries the virus & deep puncture wounds can allow the virus to take hold. It can also be spread through sex or transmitted to kittens through their mother’s milk if she is infected, but these methods are much are less common.
So, what about Feline Leukemia (FeLV) & how do they contract it?
Feline Leukemia (FeLV) is a retrovirus that severely inhibits the immune system. Similar to FIV, FeLV+ cats are more susceptible for infections & diseases, but they are also more likely to develop kidney disease or cancer (lymphosarcoma) during their lifetime.
While FIV is spread primarily through bite wounds, FeLV is able to spread in multiple ways. This virus is spread through direct contact involving saliva, urine, feces, nasal discharge, & blood. So, not just bite wounds but scratches from an infected cat could possibly spread the virus as well. Other direct contact would include grooming, sharing litter boxes, or sharing food or water bowls. It can also be passed on to kittens through their mother’s milk if she is infected.
There are 4 different types of FeLV infection:
- Abortive infections are those in which the exposed feline produces an effective & early immune response. This prevents viral replication & eliminates virus-infected cells. These cats are negative for the infection.
- Returning infections are those in which viral replication is limited, but a small population of virus infected cells remain. These cats will test negative, but the virus can be detected in a small percentage of blood cells measured by a type of blood test called a PCR. These infected cats are not contagious, but may be infectious through blood.
- Dormant infection refers to the cats in which a moderate amount of infected cells remain. These cats will test negative, but will produce a positive PCR test. The inactive infected cells do have the potential for the virus to reactivate, but the cats are not contagious as long as the infection remains dormant.
- Progressive infections are those in which the virus has infected a majority of the cells. These cats are actively shedding the virus primarily in saliva & feces, they are likely to become ill with FeLV-related disease (lymphoma).
Oh NO! So how do you find out if your cat has contracted FIV or FeLV & how often should you test?
There is a simple blood test that can be performed at your cat’s next vet visit & results can be available in 10 minutes. This test is commonly called a “Combo Test” because it tests for both FIV & FeLV.
If your feline friend regularly goes outside, or there are other cats in your house that do so, it is recommended that this test be performed every 6 months to a year. If they are indoor only, typically we will perform an initial test at their first vet visit & recheck in 4-6 months for confirmation. Sometimes a “false positive” may happen, this can be from antibodies transferred to them from their mothers or from recent vaccination. Retesting for indoor only cats is usually not necessary unless they take an unexpected vacation outside. Combo tests should always be done any time you don’t know a cat’s history, especially if you’re considering adding this new kitty to your feline family.
Okay! So now that we know about these viruses, is there any way to prevent them?
Luckily, the incidence of FeLV disease has dramatically declined over the past several decades. This is likely due to a combination of screening tests, improved awareness of the disease, & vaccination of at-risk cats. Vaccination is recommended yearly for cats that are at higher risk, while indoor only cats can be vaccinated every two years.
While there are vaccines available for FIV, studies have shown these to not be as effective & can also lead to false test results for your cat. For these reasons, our doctors at TLC Animal Hospital have decided against carrying this vaccine in clinic.
Education is always important when it comes to preventing our furry friends from harm. Talk to your veterinarian & they can help you decide which vaccines are best for your cat based on their lifestyle.
By: Shelly Crosson, CVA