This page: FIV cats are given a label and seen in isolation. We show all the other factors you need to understand surrounding the virus to put it into perspective.
FIV in perspective
FIV is often assumed to be the cause of all illnesses an FIV+ cat may suffer;
this is usually not the case.
this is usually not the case.
FIV is fundamentally a problem for the immune system, the virus attaches itself to certain immune system cells which, in theory at least, reduces their efficiency. - I say "in theory at least" as it is almost impossible to determine just how much influence the FIV has compared with other things which affect the cat's immune system.
What affects the immune system?
There are many things which affect the immune system, and FIV is just one of them; others, in our view, are far more important and have a greater effect.
There are six main groups of things, which affect the immune system:
1. Nutrition - protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants - without them the immune system will suffer
2. Toxins - in food (colouring, preservatives etc), in water (chemical cleansers and other residues), in the air (recirculated air, unnatural deodorants, chemicals etc)
3. Age - as a cat ages, the immune system reduces in efficiency
4. Physical stress - infections, injuries
5. Emotional stress - noise, fear of people and other animals, restricted movements, natural pheromones etc
6. Viruses - FIV, FeLV, others (see physical stress)
Can we measure the state of the immune system?
There is no simple measurement of the state of the immune system, so you can't simply find out what is its strength. There are tests that can give broad indications, but not the whole picture. Even if there was a single immune system test, it would only be valid for the time it was taken, and the situation can change quickly - eg if the cat is fighting an infection, there would be different readings from when the cat is free of infections. The immune system is not a constant - it is in a constant state of change.
There are tests for FIV, that can give an indication of how much virus is in the body, but it will not give information as to just how it is affecting the body. Any correlation with levels in a general blood test is not necessarily directly linked, so no simple measurements of FIV effects can be made.
All FIVs are not the same
FIV cats are often spoken of as if they are and all the same - nothing could be further from the truth!
There is a common acronym: ECID (Every Cat Is Different) - this is also true of FIV cats. It is not possible to group all FIVs as if they are the same, they will all come from different backgrounds, have different metabolisms, different temperaments and different general states of health. Much will depend on where they come from and their life in formative early years.
Because FIV is a virus that is mainly spread by the stray population, particularly stray un-neutered males, the categories of FIV cats can be broadly divided into:
long-term strays / ferals - ill or not
general strays (possibly short-term) - ill or not
These are exactly the same categories for cats that are not FIV, who would have the same causes of a poor immune system.
The circumstances from birth have a major influence on their state of health. If a cat was born to a stray mother who probably was living on a poor diet and was therefore likely to be in poor health herself, then the kitten would have a very poor start and would probably also have a very poor diet in the formative months after weaning - this would inevitably have an affect on the development of the immune system in the first place, so it would be disadvantaged from the start, and be the most likely to have health problems and probably a shortened life expectancy - regardless of any FIV status.
These cats probably never have a strong immune system, and are also most likely to be in contact with multiple viruses, so it would be expected that they would be seen to be in a poor state of health if rescued - if tested and found to be FIV, the tendency would be to blame the FIV for the state of health, whereas in reality the fact that they may also have FIV has very little to do with their general state, FIV is more a result of the circumstances than a cause of the ill health - the cat would have been in poor health even if not FIV.
Some cats may have become a stray in adulthood (for all the reasons well known to rescue organisations), these will possibly have had a much better start in life and have developed a reasonable immune system before adulthood. However, becoming a stray as an adult, it is likely to have a period of extremely poor diet or even semi starvation, which in itself will take its toll on the immune system. It is also likely to come in contact with common infections and possible injuries as a stray; these too will take it out of the immune system, weakening it more. If it then falls prey to a fighting FIV, the virus will be added to its problems, but is not likely to have been the cause of them. Again, these type of cats, if rescued and tested positive for FIV will add to the false impression that FIV cats are in poor health - whereas in reality it is stray cats in poor health that are most susceptible to becoming FIV (again, FIV is the result not the cause).
Because this category still has the benefit of an early healthy immune system, they are the most likely to recover once rescued, and to regain their original strength, and continue to live a long and healthy life if cared for - these are the main type of rescued cats that are so often needlessly put down simply because of the FIV.
The final broad category is the normal domestic cat in a home, which comes across a stray FIV looking for food and territory, this stray then fights the domestic, passing on the FIV. These domestic cats are most likely to have a very strong and healthy immune system, which continues to be so until old age - in the vast majority of cases, the FIV probably has no real effect on them at all.
So, I hope you can see that the fear that cats have a damaged immune system because of FIV is an over simplified, and broadly inaccurate representation of the facts.
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