Feline acquired immunodeficiency syndrome was discovered in 1986 in a colony of cats in California. This syndrome is found in cats worldwide. It is caused due to the virus, FIV. A virus is an ultramicroscopic infectious agent, which consists of either DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein coat.
Viruses are non-living organisms that are only able to replicate inside living cells. FIV is a retrovirus that belongs to the lentivirus family. It infects cats, lions, tigers, pumas and cheetahs. This virus is said to be similar to the virus, HIV, found in human beings.
FIV attacks the cat's immune system, thereby making it vulnerable to secondary bacterial, viral, fungal and protozoal infections. This virus is present in large quantities in the cat's saliva. Therefore, it is most commonly transmitted through bite wounds. In general, free roaming male cats are observed to be at greater risk since they frequently get involved in territorial fights. Occasionally, FIV is passed onto kittens from a FIV positive mother, either in the womb itself or during lactation. However, unlike human beings feline acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is not caused due to mating.
Once the body is infected, FIV is carried to the regional lymph nodes. White blood cells known as T lymphocytes form the site where the virus replicates. It then spreads to other lymph nodes throughout the body. This stage is marked by an acute illness, which is characterized by fever, leukopenia, anemia, malaise and swollen lymph nodes. The illness may not be noticeable during the initial stages but it lasts for a few weeks. Most cats recover from this early phase and enter a second phase.
The next stage of infection is represented by the asymptomatic phase, which can last for many years. During this stage, the cat appears healthy and lives normally. During the final stage of the disease, FIV destroys the T lymphocytes, which are required for the proper functioning of the immune system. Eventually when a large number of T lymphocytes have been destroyed, the immune system loses its ability to fight off opportunistic infections and signs of immunodeficiency flare up. It is during this third phase of infection that other signs of disease develop which can be regarded as a direct effect of the virus. Since the virus depresses the immune system and the cat's ability to fight off infection, the FIV infected cat is prone to secondary infections and diseases. These conditions can take many forms and therefore the clinical signs are quite variable. However, the combination of multiple persistent or recurrent diseases may point towards immunodeficiency. At this stage, the symptoms in cats vary from one to another. Some of the symptoms are loss of weight, malaise, poor coat condition, pyrexia, anemia, gastroenteritis, gingivitis, stomatitis, diarrhea, chronic or frequent infections of the skin, eyes, urinary tract, respiratory tract, diseases of the nervous system which may cause behavioral changes or seizures, abortion of litters and cancer.
The diagnosis of FIV is based on history, clinical signs and a blood test known as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), which detects antibodies to FIV. Unfortunately, there is no cure for FIV. The only possible therapy is to provide supportive care to the infected cat in terms of regular veterinary check ups, high quality diet, proper parasite control, limitation on outdoor exposure, use of anti-bacterial and anti-fungal drugs, maintaining proper vaccination regime and administering necessary blood transfusions required during the third stage. Although a FIV vaccine is available, it is not completely fool proof. Therefore, the best mode of prevention is to keep a check on the activities of one’s pet cat and prevent it from roaming freely.
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