Question: I've recently rescued a stray tomcat I've named Felix. After getting him checked out at the vet, I've discovered he has feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and is only about a year old. I'm concerned about him suffering with this all his life and also that my other pets—a dog and a female neutered cat called Pixie—could catch it. My friends think I should have Felix euthanized, but I love him dearly. Please could you offer some advice?
T.T., via email
Answer: Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), sometimes called 'cat AIDS', is a virus related to the human AIDS virus, HIV. But FIV is only transmitted from cat to cat, so there's no danger of you or your dog catching it. It's also unlikely that Pixie will catch it, as the suspected mode of transmission is by cat bites, so in a stable household where there is no aggressive contact between cats, it is unlikely to spread even between cats. For this reason, free-roaming unneutered male cats, who tend to be aggressive and to fight over territory and females, are the most commonly affected.
Just like HIV in people, many cats infected with the virus do not develop signs of illness for a long time. In fact, it can often take around six years for a cat to actually become sick because of the virus.
Indeed, in the vast majority of FIV-positive cats, it's not the virus per se that's the problem, but the devastation it can cause to the immune system, making the cat susceptible to other common illnesses and bacteria, fungi and viruses that are usually harmless. That's really why the average survival time for FIV-positive cats is about five years.
In an infected cat, the FIV is transported to the lymph nodes early in the course of the infection, where it multiplies in white blood cells known as 'T lymphocytes'. It then spreads to other lymph nodes all over the body, causing them to enlarge. Cats will have a high temperature or fever during this phase, which may progress to more severe disease or simply pass.
This means that most cats will have periods of recurring illness interspersed with periods of relatively good health. Poor coat condition, weight loss, gingivitis (inflamed gums), stomatitis (sore mouth), loss of appetite, and recurrent infections of the skin, eyes, bladder and respiratory system are some of the more common symptoms.
Some cats may also have chronic diarrhoea, and exhibit neurological problems and aggressive behaviour. However, most infected cats are symptom-free and healthy for several years.
FIV is diagnosed by testing blood samples for the presence of antibodies to FIV. However, some FIV-infected cats don't have antibodies, especially early on in the infection, so it's a good idea to test again after 30-60 days. Also, false-positive results are common, so it's worth retesting using a different test format to be extra certain.
There is no definitive cure for FIV. Conventional vets focus on treating symptoms as they arise and providing supportive care during periods of illness.
On the other hand, many holistic integrative vets like myself believe it's possible to ensure that FIV-positive cats have long and healthy lives by keeping their immune systems healthy and strong. Here's how.
A good-quality diet is vital for FIV cats. A homemade diet that is one-half meat, one-quarter raw or steamed vegetables and one-quarter cooked carbohydrates like brown rice is ideal.
Carrots, broccoli, beetroot, kale, greens, cabbage and sweet potatoes are excellent for immune-compromised animals like Felix.
Fresh fish, especially sardines, is a good source of essential fatty acids and an easily digested protein. Broths and soups made with meat and bones are great as they are also easily digested.
If you still wish to give Felix commercial cat food, then opt for good-quality natural products free of preservatives like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and ethoxyquin. Avoid any raw foods to minimize the risk of food-borne pathogens.
As cats with infectious diseases tend to have poor appetites, it's vital to offer palatable foods, especially as their mouths may be tender. They may also have a poor sense of smell, so pungent foods are a good idea. Try the sardine-based feline fishcake recipe in the box on page 57.
Vitamins C, E and A are important for FIV cats to boost their immune systems. Look for a good-quality pet supplement containing these antioxidant vitamins. You can also give Felix a little lick of marmite when he seems run down, as it's brimming with B vitamins.
Wheat sprouts. These are full of antioxidants and very helpful for neutralizing cell-damaging free radicals. You can grow your own wheatgrass by sowing seeds 12-cm (5-in) deep in good compost and watering well. When sprouted, keep on a deep window ledge indoors, where cats can nibble on the tips of the lush green grass, which contain the most chlorophyll. Indoor cats especially will welcome this tasty snack, so be aware that you could be replacing these seed trays often.
Catnip. Beloved by cats, this herb works on the nervous system and stomach as a calming agent and antispasmodic, easing tummy upsets, and acting as a sedative and a feline euphoric. There are loads of catnip-filled cat toys available, or consider making a catnip cat tray: sprinkle generous handfuls of loose dried catnip into a clean deep tray, at least 35-cm (14-in) wide, 50-cm (20-in) long and 10-cm (4-in) deep. Cats can explore the scents and roll about in ecstasy, releasing all those wonderful endorphins.
Astragalus membranaceus. This herb, widely available as a tincture, contains flavones that help circulation and give the immune system a boost. Nature's Answer makes an alcohol-free extract that's ideal for cats like Felix.
Suggested dosage: 10 drops per 1 oz of drinking water; give 1 dropperful twice a day
Turmeric. This spice is a powerful antioxidant that also has antimicrobial properties. If your cat can tolerate it, add a tiny pinch of powder into every meal. Felimm. This 100 per cent natural herbal remedy—made with a variety of herbs, including turmeric, burdock and St John's wort—has been reported by many pet owners to be effective for supporting and enhancing the lives of FIV-positive cats. It's made by US company NHV, which makes natural pet products and ships internationally (see www.nhvnaturalpetproducts.com). NHV also offers an FIV Kit containing other natural immune-system-boosting supplements.
Animal Essentials Apawthecary Olive Leaf Immune Support For Dogs & Cats. Available online, this is another immune-boosting supplement that's good for FIV-infected cats.
Homeopathic vet Dr Francis Hunter recommends Baptisia 3c, 6c or 30c for FIV-positive cats to help boost their immune systems. He also recommends using FIV Nosode 30C, but only under the guidance of a homeopathic vet.
Suggested dosage: Baptisia: every two hours up to six times on the first day, then three or four times a day until appetite returns
It's possible to build up your cat's immunity through acupressure. The key points to use are:
Stomach (ST) 36, located on the outside of the hind leg just below the knee joint
Spleen (SP) 6, located on the inside of the hind leg above the ankle
Lung (LU) 7, located just above the wrist joint on the inside of the fore leg
Large Intestine (LI) 11, located on
the outside of the elbow crease on the fore leg.
Applying light finger pressure on these points for 30 seconds once a day can help boost immunity. See my book, You Can Heal Your Pet, Chapter 6, for how to give acupressure to your pet.
2 x 120 g (4 oz) cans of sardines in sunflower oil
115 g (4 oz) self-raising flour
1 large free-range egg
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 heaped Tbsp unset (runny) honey
- Preheat oven to 190° C/375° F/Gas Mark 5, and grease a 24 x 21 x ¾ cm (9 x 8 x 0.30 inch) baking sheet.
- Combine and mash all the ingredients together in a large bowl until the mixture comes together as a soft dough.
- Spread dough evenly over the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on the tray. Cut into small bite-size squares.
Keep in an airtight glass container in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
• Keep Felix indoors to prevent him from spreading the virus. It's also important that Felix is neutered to stop him trying to get out in search of females, and to control any aggressive tendencies that could lead to fighting and biting.
• Get Felix and Pixie thoroughly checked by your vet twice a year, and also have Pixie tested for FIV. While there's now an FIV vaccine available, it's not always effective.
• It's best for Felix not be given any vaccines, as it's not advisable to vaccinate an immune-compromised cat.
• Vets used to recommend euthanizing all cats that tested positive for FIV but, nowadays, just being FIV-positive is not a death sentence. There's now evidence that FIV is not transmitted between cats during normal day-to-day interactions in the same home. In fact, the virus is not spread by sharing litter boxes, food or water bowls, or while playing or snuggling up together. It's only when an infected cat bites and breaks the skin of another immune-compromised cat that the disease can potentially be spread. Also, contrary to what was previously believed, the virus is not transmitted to kittens by FIV-positive mothers.1
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com