"Magnifico", a fabulous grey tabby, lounged imperially on the exam room table. His new owner, who was clearly already quite smitten with him, had just gotten him at the Humane Society and was bringing him in for his initial checkup. . As I looked him over it was clear from the battle scars on his face and ears that his previous life as an outdoor cat had involved a significant amount of combat, but you would never guess from his relaxed and friendly demeanor. All in all he was an exceptionally fine catch of a cat and seemed generally healthy. The final step in the initial exam was to run a quick test for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Much to our dismay "Magnifico" tested positive for FIV.
Of course the first question for an owner of a FIV positive cat is "What is FIV and what does that mean for my cat?" FIV is an incurable viral disease that stays with the cat for the duration of his life. Its analog in the human world is HIV. Many cats who have the virus are not visibly sick, an many live relatively normal lives, however FIV positive cats are often prone to chronic low grade illnesses. Intractable eye problems, mouth inflammation, and diarrhea are commonly associated with FIV. A few cats develop more serious illness as a result of the virus that sometimes become life-threatening. There is no single presentation of illness as a result of FIV--it works by damaging the immune system and letting other bad things creep in and cause problems.
Cats primarily contract the virus after being bitten by an infected cat. Of course biting other cats is the most popular pastime of feral cats everywhere, so once it gets a foothold in the feral population it tends to spread rapidly. Feral cats don’t limit their biting just to each other, either. A juicy housecat out for an afternoon stroll is always a desirable target on which the local ferals like to sharpen their teeth. I see a significant number of FIV positive cats every year here in the Springs, both feral and owned.
The next question most owners ask is "Why don’t rescue organizations test the cats before sending them out for adoption? " It is understandable that owners are looking at a cat that they already care about and now, unexpectedly, they are facing potential chronic illness and spread of an incurable virus to other cats in the household. There is no question that if they give the cat back to the humane society he will be euthanized. Who can look "Magnifico" in the face and condemn him to death?
The reason many rescues don’t test for FELV and FIV comes down to simple economics. For every 100 cats that enter the Humane Society about 70 of them are euthanized. For argument’s sake (and to make the math easier for me) let’s say that Rescue organizations are able to purchase FELV/FIV tests for $10 apiece--a cost significantly lower than what we general practitioners pay for the test. For every batch of 100 cats the cost of testing would be $1000, but because only 30 of them get adopted the $1000 dollar cost of testing would have to be incorporated in the adoption fee for those 30 cats. All of a sudden each cat will cost about $33 in addition to costs of spaying, neutering, vaccinating, housing, feeding, etc. Most people are willing to spend about $10 for a cat from the humane society, so a dramatically higher adoption fee would result in a dramatically lower adoption rate. Unfortunately that leaves the burden of testing on new owners.
FIV positive cats can often do quite well, but the best situation for them is to be in a single cat household and strictly indoor only. "Magnifico" was lucky. His owner was already too attached to let him go, so she committed to caring for him in spite of his condition. Let’s hope he continues to stay healthy for a long time and is prevented from ever going out and giving it to someone else.