Feline Immunodeficiency Virus & Your Cat

cat FIV infection

When I was young, like all kids, I wanted to know why everything happened. Having vets as parents, I can distinctly remember asking why male cats needed to be desexed.

“It’s because otherwise they fight so much that they get run down and die early.”

With the benefit of hindsight, this is pure folk wisdom. People could see that fighting was associated with sickness, but not yet why. Then, in 1986, hot on the heels of the discovery of the human AIDS virus, researchers in the USA put two and two together and found a feline AIDS virus in cats like these. We call it FIV.

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Help! My Kitten Has Cat Flu

feline calicivirus symptoms

‘At A Glance (Details Below)’

What Is Cat Flu?

  1. Cat flu isn’t influenza or a cold, it’s either a herpesvirus or calicivirus
  2. Symptoms include fever, not eating, and eye or respiratory infection
  3. Many infected cats become virus carriers or have lifelong problems
  4. Rarer conditions caused by cat flu include arthritis, gingivitis, eye damage, stillbirths & abortion

Now dive deeper.

A stray kitten was found in a backyard a few weeks ago. Like most people do, her finders never hesitated to give her a home. Straight away, however, they knew something was wrong.

That’s her pictured above and below. She’s obviously miserable, but it’s the second photo that shows what’s really going on. This is ‘cat flu’.

You probably diligently vaccinate your cat against flu but do you know what it is? Cat flu is nothing like what most people think. For a start, it’s not flu!

Common Symptoms Of Cat Flu

Cat flu just looks like a severe cold until you take a closer look. It causes:

cat flu symptoms
Mouth ulcers, conjunctivitis and nasal discharge in a poor kitty with cat flu
  • Fever, lethargy and not eating or drinking
  • Clear or yellow-green discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Sneezing, coughing and difficulty breathing (read the other causes of sneezing in cats here)
  • Ulcers on the mouth, tongue and occasionally the eyes

But that’s not all. These nasty viruses sometimes do a lot more damage. Other important effects can be:

  • Arthritis
  • Viral pneumonia
  • Stillbirth, abortion or birth defects

And yet, there’s still even more. Most of the time it doesn’t go away…

How Long Does Cat Flu Last?

For a simple, uncomplicated case of flu, a cat might be back to normal in seven days. However, in most cases, secondary bacterial infection of the eyes, nose, sinuses or chest increases both the severity and duration of the illness.

Cat flu is treated by:

  • TLC, fluid and nutrition support
  • Antibiotics and eye ointments for secondary infection
  • Bathing and steaming to reduce buildup of secretions
  • More TLC

Most of these cats will still make a full recovery, although they suffer quite a bit in the process. For many, though, and especially the young or neglected, long-term problems persist.

Long-Term Effects of Cat Flu

  • Chronic rhinitis is a nasal infection that persists for life
  • Stunted growth is common in infected kittens
  • Stomatitis-gingivitis complex is a severe mouth infection
  • Most cats who get infected will carry the virus for life

If there’s just one thing I want all cat owners to understand about flu, it’s this last point about carriers.

How Cats Catch Flu

Cat flu is spread in the saliva of apparently healthy carrier cats. Nearly every cat who got cat flu once will carry and spread the virus for life. Carriers are estimated to represent around 30% of all cats.

It’s not their fault. It’s up to all of us to know where the real risk is and stop it. Here’s what I do…

How I Prevent Cat Flu

The viruses spread both directly from cat to cat and indirectly via objects, people and the environment.

  • I assume that every cat I see could be a carrier
  • I wash my hands between each cat and change my coat regularly
  • I use an isolation room for known infected cats
  • I clean and disinfect all equipment after every cat I see
  • I change my clothes when I get home
  • I ask breeders to test their breeding stock for carriers
  • I get my kittens from trusted sources like good breeders or the Animal Welfare League

I hope now you understand why a good cattery never mixes cats or uses anything that can’t be disinfected.

I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit like a scare story. It’s all gospel truth but we’re in danger of forgetting how things once were. If you want to read more, visit an old page where I featured three cats with rare consequences of cat flu or here for other causes of mouth ulcers.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Update On The Rabbit Calicivirus Outbreak

rabbit calicivirus vaccination

Update 2018:

To those who love rabbits it’s been a tough few years.

On the 24th of February, 2016 we were notified that the new strain of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus called RHDV2 had reached South Australia and was causing deaths around Adelaide.

We posted an alert on our Facebook page, and only then did the true horror of what was happening become clear.

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How Vets Use Vaccines To Protect Your Pet

vet giving vaccine
  1. Two weeks ago I told you about the diseases of dogs and diseases of cats that we use vaccines to prevent.
  2. Last week I covered vaccine reactions, vaccinating safely and alternatives to vaccination like titre testing.
  3. In this third week I’ll tell you about the changes to vaccination schedules for your pet.
  4. In the final post I’ll you which vaccinations pets need every year
    vaccine puppy

This adorable kelpie cross came to me last week for his ten week puppy vaccination. Most of you already know that we can give a final puppy vaccine at 10 weeks of age which allows puppies to go out at 11 weeks of age.

The problem was, when I looked at his file, he was 9 weeks and 6 days old: one day early.

What’s the problem? It’s only one day early!

I really want you to know the answer; I promise it will be worth it. Once you understand, you’ll know how vaccines work and how they are developed and tested for your pet.

Maternally Derived Antibody is a natural system developed in animals to provide early protection. In the first day of life, the mother’s milk contains high levels of antibodies, and the new puppy or kitten has the ability for these to pass straight from the gut to the bloodstream.

We call this Passive Immunity and it’s essential for animals to survive their first few weeks.

The problem is that it interferes with vaccination. That’s why we can’t give vaccines early even if we want to.

Different vaccines have different abilities to overcome passive immunity, and that’s why you hear all sorts of recommendations for when your puppy or kitten should get their shots.

young pet vaccination

The thing is though, nothing in nature is predictable. The loss of maternal ability will follow a pattern like I’ve pictured here. Using puppies as an example, some (red arrow) lose protection early, and some (green arrow) late.

BUT we have to protect 100% of the puppies we see. If we knew when the MDA wore off we’d do it at the earliest possible for each puppy.

Since we don’t, we have to choose an age when we can say all puppies will develop protective immunity after vaccination. That’s at the time of the green arrow.

For our vaccine that’s 10 weeks of age. The problem is, we only know this because the manufacturer has tested the vaccine in exactly this way.

They never tested the vaccine at every age, and we have no way of knowing if 100% are still protected at 9 weeks and 6 days.

That’s why:

  • The dates are very strict
  • We can be just as happy if the puppy is older than 10 weeks, just not any younger.
  • We’re so nervous about puppies going out before their final vaccination. For the final vaccine to ‘take’, there always has to be a gap where the puppy has lost their immunity, and in some pups it can be up to four weeks.

The same is true for cats.

adult pet vaccination

Now let’s look at adult dogs and cats. Once again, immunity will wear off at some time, and the graph will look much the same. Once again, our job is that no animal is left unprotected, so we have to give the booster at a time when no dog or cat has yet lost immunity.

That’s the red arrow. As you can see, most pets will lose the immunity much later. The problem is, if we try to predict this, some animals will be at risk, and the consequences could be terrible.

As I said last week, we have no reliable way of detecting which cats and dogs have lost their immunity.

The vaccine schedules we use are designed to make the time between vaccinations as long as possible without any animals being put at risk.

Our vaccine schedules are therefore quite complicated. You’ll find the complete guidelines for Walkerville Vet at Vaccination Explained page. There’s a quick summary for adult animals at the end of this article.

What else is done to make vaccines work?

dog leg examination
Examining the muscles and joints
  • Development and testing: All vaccines in order to achieve registration for legal use in Australia are required to have their safety and efficacy proven in clinical trials. Once in use, any adverse effects or vaccine failures are reported to the same registering body, who can revoke licensing if necessary.
  • Correct storage: Have you heard of the ‘cold chain’? This refers to the correct transportation and storage of vaccines to ensure they remain effective. We use a local supplier to ensure rapid transit times and have specialised vaccine chillers to hold them at the correct temperature. Thats one on the wall behind me.
  • Choosing the right patient: Last week (and above) I talked about when we do not vaccinate your pet. This is important both for their health and for the vaccine to work properly.
  • Correct use: We have correct handling and administration guidelines which I’m always happy to explain as I do it.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.