FIV and FeLV in shelter cats: When to test or not to test becomes an economic dilemma

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: November 02, 2010
Published: May 25, 2009
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Let’s say you’re at the shelter picking out a new cat or kitten. Your heart is set on this little tabby female so you pay your adoption fee and make your way home, content in the knowledge that Misty’s been spayed, dewormed and vaccinated––as healthy as can be, right?

A year later, you take Misty in to see the veterinarian. Must be time for shots, you think. Here’s when your veterinarian finds that Misty’s got a pretty nasty set of gums for such a young cat. She urges you to have her tested for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline AIDS (FIV) since viruses like these have been associated with oral infections.

But you decline. After all, you say, Misty has never been outside of your house. She’s only been exposed to one other cat: your black boy, Moxie. And she was tested at the shelter, right?

“Well...maybe not,” says your vet.

So when the test comes up positive for feline leukemia, you recheck your adoption paperwork only to find that the box for FeLV/FIV test was left unchecked on the outtake form. No test. 

Not only is Misty positive––with all that entails––but Moxie has been exposed and may well have become infected, too. Since feline leukemia spreads readily through close contact (unlike FIV, which requires bites or sexual activity) it’s a very real possibility Moxie’s positive––and your veterinarian subsequently confirms he is. 


This nightmare scenario, uncommon though it may be, is brought to you by an increasing number of shelters across the country. That’s because spaying and neutering cats takes precedence over all other shelter functions (for good reason). And when budgets are tight, the expense of a feline leukemia/feline AIDS test can prove onerous for cash-strapped shelters to assume. 

We’re all trying to save money in this economy. If you think you’ve got it bad, consider the plight of your local shelter: 

Not only have they seen their budgets slashed, their expenses are way up. Everything from pet food to FeLV/FIV testing is more expensive. Add to that the burden of economic pet abandonment and you can see why your local shelter’s finding it necessary to make cuts in services once considered eminently un-slashable.

But how can they justify adopting out sick pets? 

Easy. That’s because the incidence of feline leukemia is on the decline in many parts of the US. It’s also because these killer diseases have become less virulent...and their effects more treatable. Moreover, the prevalence of “false positives,” particularly in feline leukemia testing, has given some shelter docs confidence that as many as 50% of cats that test positive on test #1 will test negative on test #2. 

Here's one shelter veterinarian's POV on this.

In a perfect world, no pet would go out untested. No positives would slip through the cracks. But in the midst of an economic stress-fest, can we really expect shelters to pay as much in FeLV/FIV testing as for spaying and neutering? 

You may even argue (with good reason) that it’s a pet owner’s responsibility to have their pet checked by a veterinarian after adoption. If extra tests are needed (and they almost invariably are), the onus is on the new owner to responsibly address these individual pet issues. After all, shelters aren’t always best equipped to provide the one-on-one kind of attention you’d expect from your regular vet. 

Nonetheless, it’s also clear that with reduced testing comes increased responsibility. Shelters where testing has gone out the window MUST provide new owners the information they need to hedge against the possibility of FeLV/FIV positivity. 

Something along the lines of, “You MUST go straight to your veterinarian and have him tested!” works for me.