An Impassioned Defense for the Adoption of FIV-Positive Cats

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Apr. 14, 2010

Last weekend was a busy one. Good thing most of the work involved getting myself from one city to another … then one spa appointment to another … then one meal to another. Thankfully, I had this blog to keep me from thinking I’d died and gone to the Ritz Carlton.

It was during this weekend with friends on Amelia Island, Florida that the subject of living with FIV-positive cats came up. One friend, herself a veterinarian, was bemoaning her husband’s disinterest in "Frogger," a gorgeous little hellraiser of a kitten who’d been abandoned at her New Orleans hospital.

She’d been dying to take him home since the beginning. But once he tested positive for FIV (a.k.a. feline AIDS), and it became absolutely clear that his chances of adoption approximated almost nil, she knew he’d been meant for her.

It’s something all us veterinarians do (lots of us, anyhow). We fall in love with animals but don’t let ourselves seriously think of the possibility of taking them home unless it’s plain there are no other takers … and never will be. We’re their last hope, we reason as we make plans to indulge our animal-acquiring ways and integrate them into our households.

Problem is, not every vet is lucky enough to live in the absence of another household member’s strong opinion (think: spouses). Which is something of a safety net, as I see it. Left to our own devices, I think most of the serial adopters among us would end up looking like "crazy cat ladies" in no time

In Frogger's case, the spouse in question was putting up a pretty good fight on the basis of Frogger’s FIV status, and the presence of another household cat, which, ultimately, was his downfall (the husband’s, not Frogger’s). Because there’s nothing that riles me up more than animal lovers who are willing to adopt (or even purchase) pets they know will have a short lifespan and plenty of chronic health concerns, but will deny a perfectly loving cat a wonderful home based exclusively on the result of one test. So it was that I went to bat for Frogger with these arguments in his favor:

1. While false positives are relatively uncommon, they do happen. I always follow up a positive with another test at an outside laboratory before committing to a tentative diagnosis.

2. As far as I’m concerned, the diagnosis of FIV remains tentative until the test can be repeated within six weeks time. That’s because a positive FIV test does not always point to a cat that will remain positive. A percentage of cats can actually clear this virus from their circulation within a few weeks. And as far as we know, these cats remain immune to FIV for life.

3. FIV is about as transmissible as HIV — which is to say, not very. Animals in the same household cannot transmit the disease from one to another except through sexual activity (which sterilized animals will not effectively engage in), or bite wounds (not typical even among cohabitants with bad attitudes). The same can’t be said for FeLV (feline leukemia, which can be transmitted by more casual contact (e.g., grooming, sharing food).

4. Cats with FIV can live very long, full lives with few complications from their disease. Here are some details, courtesy of the American Association of Feline Practitioners:

Retrovirus-positive cats may live many years without related illness. A decision about euthanasia should not be made based on a positive test alone.

  • Retrovirus-positive cats should be evaluated by a veterinarian twice a year. In addition to a thorough physical exam, a minimum database including a complete blood count, chemistry panel and urinalysis should be performed at least yearly. Cats with FeLV may have complete blood counts performed twice yearly due to their increased risk of hematological diseases.
  • Utilize aggressive diagnostic and treatment plans early in the course of any illness.
  • Retrovirus positive cats should be spayed or neutered, housed indoors, and should avoid raw food diets.
  • Few large controlled studies have been performed using antiviral or immunomodulating drugs for the treatment of naturally infected cats. More research is needed to identify best practices to improve long-term outcomes following retroviral infections in cats.

5. An effective vaccine against FIV can be had. Here’s some info, again thanks to the AAFP:

When To Consider FIV Vaccination:

  • Cats living with FIV-positive cats, particularly if there is fighting.
  • Cats that go outside and fight.
  • Cats vaccinated with the current FIV vaccine will test positive for FIV antibodies. Visible (collar) and permanent (microchip) identification is recommended for all cats to facilitate reunification should cats become lost. This especially important for cats vaccinated against FIV since a positive test in an animal shelter may result in euthanasia.

By the end of my diatribe, which took all of about five minutes, I think I’d succeeded in convincing a reluctant FIV adopter to take on a not-so-hard-case. (It didn’t hurt that my boyfriend [also a vet] nodded in support throughout my entire spiel.)

Sure, his wife had already gone through these points professionally, but somehow it seemed more reasonable now that two non-invested veterinary parties were making a case for Frogger (and who can resist a cat with that name anyway?). But not every cat has access to three veterinarians who will advocate vociferously on his behalf. Which is why blog posts like this must be written, and the highly respected AAFP referenced liberally.

So the next time you hear about FIV-positives getting turned down for an indoor life in a forever home, feel free to point to a few veterinarians who were happy to spend a chunk of what might otherwise have been a boring day by a sand dune arguing passionately in favor of giving FIV positives a chance at adoption.

The moral of the story: Don’t partner up with a veterinarian if you don’t care to suffer the occasional onslaught of adoptees. Just so you know, it’s an inevitable side effect of this profession, and perhaps the biggest reason veterinarians end up with veterinarians.


Dr. Patty Khuly

Art of the day: "Cat at the breakfast table, Zanzibar" by Stephanie Watson.


Patty Khuly, DVM


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