This page: It is well known that the FIV virus and its implications are much misunderstood; we look at the reasons and explain where the wrong ideas came from

Why is FIV so misunderstood?


Is it really so terrible?


Among the many different views about FIV, one which is often voiced is that FIV is a "terrible disease" which "destroys the immune system". However, if you look at the facts, you will see that this is quite wrong.

What actually happens when a cat gets FIV?
Well, in simple terms, the virus attaches itself to specific cells in the immune system, and very slowly, over a period of several years, it will reduce the number of these cells. It is only when the number of these cells has been reduced dramatically (from a count of over 1,000 down to around 200) that it has any real effect on the way the immune system works, and that takes many years - with many cats, the level remains high enough not to be a problem for the rest of its life - so in most cases an FIV cat's immune system just goes on working, not perfectly, but perfectly adequately.

So where does the idea that FIV is so terrible come from?

Back in 1986, when FIV was first identified, it was the time when the human version, HIV, was seen as something like the plague, with all sorts of unfounded scare stories. So when the feline version (FIV) was identified, it took on much the same mantle.

Sadly, the general view and understanding of the feline version (FIV) has not progressed much since, and for many it has remained at the over-hyped stage.

In the early days (up to around the year 2000) several scientific studies were carried out, not so much for the benefit of the cats, but more because it was hoped that FIV would be a convenient model for investigating the human HIV virus. There was a problem though: because FIV, like HIV, had little effect for several years, the scientists clearly couldn't just wait for years in order to do their research, so one solution would be to infect the cats they studied artificially, with overwhelming amounts of highly virulent virus, so they could start their measurements straight away!

The problem then was that by flooding the cats' systems with so much virus it was in no way representative of a naturally infected cat. A naturally infected cat's body would have been dealing with a tiny amount of the virus for many years before reaching a stage when there was any observable effect. The scientists' approach would be like studying the effects of light summer rain by only looking at times of extreme and flood - it was just not representative of the normal situation - naturally infected cats would never have the levels of virus given to some 'study' cats.

Even the studies that looked at naturally infected cats could obviously only use those identified as FIV positive. As any cat who seemed healthy would not have been tested, and would therefore not have been even identified as FIV, meant the cats observed were only those with later stage infections, or cats unhealthy for other reasons, so the studies would have been focused on those who potentially were more likely to have problems, and would therefore not have been representative of FIV cats in general.

The general cat population did not provide any useful information about how the virus affected FIV cats, because in those early days, once a cat was known to have FIV, it was usually put down, thus preventing any learning in the longer-term.
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It is only now, after more than twenty five years, that there is beginning to be a sufficient bank of information from cats identified early and allowed to live their lives.
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Everyone is finally beginning to see that the early research gave a false impression of the effects of the virus.

It was with this background of unrepresentative studies, that the various animal organisations began to form, or review, their ideas and policies about FIV. How did they do this? They did this by looking at all the early (unrepresentative) research, and then used that to formulate their views!

If you look at the major bodies that report on feline health, such as ABCD (European Advisory Board of Cat Diseases), AAFP (American Association of Feline practitioners) and ICC (International Cat Care - note: name changed in 2013 from FAB, Feline Advisory Bureau) all of which basically comprise of vets and scientists who have little direct experience of long-term exposure to these cats, they base their views on all the studies carried out previously. Their reports list all the references they have used to form their views, and most of the references listed are dated in the 1990s, some even in the 1980s. Even those studies that are dated later, themselves often make reference back to the earlier studies. As the early studies were not representative of the naturally infected cat, it is little wonder that these 'experts' form views that do not match with what is being learnt from the experience of actual cats living normal lives with the virus over a longer period.

Sadly, it is these authorities' reports that are referred to by both rescue organisations and often vets too.


Which brings us to the next point - why do so many vets seem to have a poor view of cats with the virus?

Many vets assume FIV cats will be ill. This is reinforced when a stray cat comes into the vet's, often suffering from many problems, the cat will usually be tested for FIV and, if found positive, the illness will be seen as part of the repercussions of FIV - most assume the FIV to be a major factor. They then go on to assume this is typical for all FIV cats.

These are false assumptions on two counts - firstly the stray cat who tests positive for FIV, would probably have been out scrounging to survive, suffering a very poor diet or possibly semi-starvation; it would have been untreated for any injuries or infections it may have picked up, and consequently would understandably be seen as an ill cat - the important point is that this would be true for any cat living in those circumstances. The fact that a cat has also picked up FIV is just another symptom of the life it has been leading, and cannot therefore be given as the cause of the illness. A cat living the life of a stray, but who had not picked up the virus, would suffer in the same way, it is the life they have led that has caused their ill health - so it is wrong to blame the FIV for the illness.

Secondly, vets are only likely to test for FIV with stray cats and ill cats; they are unlikely to test healthy cats because they would not suspect them of having FIV. Many FIV cats who are well looked after are perfectly healthy.

By way of an example - all the FIV cats in our sanctuary are fundamentally healthy - everyone who visits comments on how fit and healthy they look, which is simply because they have a good diet and veterinary treatment when required, that would be true of any well cared for cat. If any of our FIV cats were to be taken to a vet without them knowing they were FIV, for, say, a routine vaccination, there would be no way the vet would even suggest testing for FIV, they would just see a fit, well cared for cat. Any FIV cat who is cared for, is likely to be in similar good health, but many vets assume they are not FIV because they look so well.

This means that vets are making their assumptions about FIV from an unbalanced sample - only stray or ill FIV cats, and not the healthy FIV cats - so it is not surprising that they have a false idea about the virus. It would be like looking at the human health of the country by only looking at those who are ill and in hospital, and ignoring the vast majority at home and perfectly well. It would be obvious to all that they would need to see the whole population, not just the ill ones, to get a balanced view - the same is true of FIV, but this seems to pass by many vets when making their judgement.

There is no real evidence that FIV actually causes a cat to be ill for most of it's life, yet so many think that it will - on what evidence are these views based? Seemingly no more than a series of false assumptions and misunderstanding of how the virus actually works.

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