Following 2020 updates to the American Association of Feline Practitioners guidelines, Urban Cat Coalition will be making some changes in the practices of testing for feline retroviruses. We’ll outline that information below, but for details regarding the AAFP’s findings and protocol, please feel free to click here.
The term “feline retroviruses” includes both Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). Each of these RNA-based viral illnesses impacts cats in different ways; however, they are currently tested for together.
Over the years, both FeLV and FIV have become very misunderstood. Until recently, many people thought that a positive test for either disease meant an immediate death sentence for the cat. Today, we understand each virus much better.
Feline Retrovirus Facts
Neither FeLV nor FIV can be transmitted to humans. In fact, outside of a cat, each can be very easily destroyed with common household disinfectants. Approximately 3% of all cat populations are infected with feline retroviruses, too, which means neither FeLV or FIV are very prevalent.
So now that we have more understanding of what FeLV and FIV are NOT, what about the facts about the viruses themselves? Here are some facts about each:
FeLV is transmitted through an infected cat’s saliva. This can happen in situations where a cat is nursing, through a direct bite wound, or through prolonged contact, such as co-grooming and sharing food dishes.
Once transmitted, three things can happen:
The cat might have what’s called an “abortive infection.” That means they will naturally fight the virus and become virus-free.
The cat will have what’s called a “regressive infection.” In this case, they will retain the virus in their bone marrow, but will remain asymptomatic. In some cases that we are still researching, certain stressors will cause them to become ill.
The cat will develop standard clinical symptoms. This is known as a “progressive infection.”
The clinical signs and symptoms of FeLV include: higher risk of infections, cancer, neurological diseases, and anemia
Infected kittens have a very low survival rate, while adult cats with a progressive infection typically only live a few years after diagnosis.
FIV can only be transmitted from the saliva of an infected cat to an open bite wound.
There are two typical outcomes: either the cat progresses to clinical disease, or remains asymptomatic for the rest of its life
The clinical signs of FIV include increased risk of infection, higher risk of immune-related diseases (gingivitis, diarrhea, dermatitis), cancer (lymphoma), neurological disease
Unlike FeLV, cats who test as FIV+ can live a very normal lifespan.
There is very little risk of FIV spreading without direct contact between an infected cat and an open wound, soFIV+ cats can usually live with FIV- cats as long as no one is aggressive.
Testing and Vaccination
Currently, the ELISA test checks for FeLV antigens (the presence of actual virus), and FIV antibodies. Unfortunately, this test is not perfect. Typically, even the most sensitive test is only 98% accurate, which means 2% of the population tested might have a false positive or false negative. FIV doesn’t appear on tests until 60 days after exposure, while FeLV requires 30 days to appear on a test. Additionally, tests conducted on nursing or very recently weaned kittens might be incorrect, due to showing the mother’s results.
While FeLV does have an available vaccine, it is not considered one of the core vaccinations, and is often addressed between a cat’s family and their vet. FIV does not have an available vaccine in the US or Canada.
Previously, many rescues would test all cats for feline retroviruses. This can get very expensive, especially for a test with unreliable results. That can lead to re-testing, which can be even more expensive, and stressful for the cats.
The new guidelines from the AAFP make sense for cats who are rescued by the Urban Cat Coalition, and we’ll be following them going forward. Their recommendations are to initially test only high-risk cats, such as those who are showing symptoms of health issues, or cats who have lots of scars or open wounds.
AAFP also recommends that cats who are having significant medical issues or are involved in a legal situation are tested.
Those who adopt low-risk cats can certainly discuss the pros and cons of testing and vaccinating low-risk cats with their family vet.
Urban Cat Coalition is primarily concerned with the quality of life of any of the cats we interact with. All cats, from TNR to foster cats, are carefully observed for health issues. Though we will no longer subject ALL cats to testing, all adoptable cats will receive thorough vet care, including (but not limited to):
Rabies vaccine (Age appropriate)
Distemper vaccine (Age appropriate)
Our goal is to educate all adopters on the risks, realities, and rewards of rescue cat ownership. Being a rescue parent can be one of the most rewarding experiences for cat lovers, and we want to be transparent regarding our procedures.
Please feel free to contact us with any questions!