The world was very different for cats with FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) in 1993 when Carol Bessette, long-time volunteer at Whiskers Animal Benevolent League, took home her first FIV-positive cat, Boots.
"We didn’t know much about FIV then," she remembers, "and we didn’t have room in the old shelter to keep FIV+ cats without caging them for their entire lives. When we got [Boots] to the shelter, he looked at me from his new cozy bed and I put my head down and he headbutted me! That was it — he came home with me. I figured he could live in my spare bedroom if he had to, and it was better than the alternative."
Whiskers now has an entire room devoted to FIV+ cats. There are only a handful — less than 10 out of the 130 cats who reside at the shelter — but the cats now have space to roam and play.
Linda Kreuzburg has volunteered at Whiskers for the past five years, primarily in the FIV room.
"Every time I walk up the stairs," she says, "the cats come running for treats."
These cats want what all other cats want — a warm lap to curl up on, fresh food and water, clean litter boxes, and a soft bed to sleep on — and Linda is happy to be there to provide comfort, care, and a sense of normalcy for FIV+ cats, who have a disease that is often misunderstood.
Walking into the FIV room at Whiskers, you’d never know the cats are sick. In fact, these cats are just as loving, playful, and funny (if not more so) as the "main population" disease-free cats downstairs.
Mike Knoll, a volunteer who works primarily in the senior room, has a special affinity with Alvin and Vernon, a motley pair of friends who race for the chance to sit on his lap (often resulting in one cat sitting on top of the other). Vernon, though sweet to everyone, seems to be particularly drawn to men, and I have often seen him precariously sprawled across the shoulders of male volunteers who have crouched down in his presence.
The FIV room is also home to McCoy, a beautiful Maine Coon who is an infamous "door darter" — meaning he’s always ready to run into the next room to say hi to the cats in the infirmary. As an infirmary-room volunteer myself, I scoot him back to his room at least once per shift. What McCoy lacks in teeth (they were extracted due to stomatitis), he makes up for tenfold in goofy mischief.
According to veterinary technician Hannah Curtin, FIV+ cats are predisposed to gingivitis and stomatitis.
"It’s important that their diet be geared toward general oral health," she says, "and routine dental checkups are advisable."
In fact, she recommends keeping a close eye on an FIV+ cat’s diet in general, as this is a large part in the supportive care of many disease states.
"Many FIV+ cats remain asymptomatic throughout much of their lives," she says.
Hannah insists that "the ideal home for an FIV+ cat should be indoor only and very clean.ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼Indoors to protect the positive cat from outside pathogens and injury, and also to prevent the spread of the virus into the outdoor cat population.ÔÇ¡ And clean,ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼for a similar reason.ÔÇ¡ FIV+ cats are,ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼of course,ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼immune compromised and therefore very susceptible to any pathogen that they come in contact with."
Given caution and the correct circumstances, FIV+ cats can be expected to live long and healthy lives.
A spayed or neutered FIV+ cat does require more care, but relatively little. Twice-annual veterinary checkups are recommended, including a blood count, dental exam, and urine analysis. Otherwise, a nutritionally balanced diet and an indoor-only lifestyle should be enough to maintain health and wellness.
FIV+ cats are even able to interact with other cats, as long as neither are aggressive or territorial. "Our cats had a wonderful friend named Floyd who was FIV positive," Hannah recalls, "and they socialized regularly to no ill-effect for many years." Unlike some other more highly contagious diseases, the principle mode of FIV transmission is through deep bite wounds and scratches, where the FIV+ cat’s saliva enters the other cat’s bloodstream.
"Barring fights,ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼there is little to no evidence supporting fomite transmission of FIV — the virus can live only minutes to hours outside of the hostÔÇ¡, ÔÇ¼and it is susceptible to routine disinfectants –ÔÇ¡ ÔÇ¼so FIV cats can have other feline friends." FIV doesn’t seem to be commonly spread through shared-cat resources such as food bowls or litter boxes, or through grooming, sneezing, or other non-aggressive contact.
FIV+ cats rarely get a second look from folks looking to adopt, an unfortunate blow to these cats who would thrive in a home environment. If you are in a position to adopt a special-needs cat, please consider a cat with FIV. Opening your home and heart to a "less adoptable" cat gives him a second chance — literally, an opportunity of a lifetime.
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