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Kansas OKs the adoption of FIV cats, and a bit of history

Until last month, Kansas was the only state in the U.S. to prohibit the adoption or transfer of cats who test positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Prior to a hard-fought win by Kansas Humane Society, local advocate Katie Barnett and the Best Friends legislative advocacy team (led in this case by Rich Angelo), FIV-positive cats were killed in Kansas shelters. 

The official order permitting the adoption of FIV-positive cats was signed in March and states in part that “in consultation with Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine specialists, this disease, although communicable, has been determined to be safely managed under specific guidelines.”

We are grateful for this ruling, which will save so many lives that would previously have been taken. FIV-positive cats in Kansas shelters will now have the opportunity for a happy future.

Best Friends has a rather unique history with FIV. In February of 1987, I drove one of our sanctuary cats, Queenie, an orange tabby Persian-looking kitty, to the veterinary hospital at the University of California, Davis, for what would be the first viable feline kidney transplant in the world. Queenie made history and is still mentioned in the technical literature. 

The case was a celebrated breakthrough and Queenie had a lot more than 15 minutes of fame. While at UC Davis, I was approached by a research assistant of virologist Dr. Niels Pedersen and informed that his team had recently discovered a new cat disease that threatened cat colonies and was an analogue disease to HIV/AIDS in humans. In 1987, AIDS was a terrifying mystery and a positive diagnosis was all but an absolute death sentence. How the disease was spread was little understood and fear of contagion was approaching the level of a national panic.

In the world of cat care, we had just emerged from the depressing reality of untreatable and unpreventable feline leukemia (FeLV) infection in cats with the release in 1986 of the first FeLV vaccine. That vaccine was a lifesaving game-changer for cats, so the news of a newly detectable kitty-killing virus was very bad news indeed.

The UC Davis folks suggested that we get some of our cats tested for FIV and were quite alarmist about the potential risk to our very large cat population. FeLV was very contagious and very deadly. It was assumed that FIV, another retrovirus, would follow a similar script.

We initially tested a single cattery of sanctuary cats and about half came up positive for FIV. Yikes!

The experts at UC Davis were emphatic: We couldn’t adopt any of these cats to new homes; we shouldn’t add any new cats to the group; we shouldn’t move any from this cattery to another cattery, even those who tested negative for FIV because they were likely already infected. So, we kept them isolated and followed all of the protocols we observed with our FeLV-positive cattery.

We watched and we waited, expecting the FIV-positive cats to show signs of disease and believing that the virus would spread inexorably to all the cats in the group through shared food and water bowls, litter trays and grooming. One of the positive cats was a big amiable tom who used to habitually groom one of the negative cats.  

A year went by, then two. Nothing appeared to change and none of the cats in the group showed any signs of illness. Eventually, we retested the entire cattery and, to our surprise, the virus had not spread to any of the other cats in this environment of high exposure.

Meanwhile, a simple test for FIV had been developed and vets nationwide were recommending that infected cats be put down for fear of contagion.

We didn’t know what to make of our unofficial clinical trial, but it wasn’t long before various veterinary journals published studies that confirmed Best Friends’ observations and reported that FIV was not readily transmitted through shared living arrangements. Rather, the primary route of contagion was saliva to blood through deep bites. This type of cat bite is most commonly associated with unfixed tomcats fighting over territory and unfixed females. 

This finding took place more than 25 years ago and it opened the door for the adoption of FIV-positive cats into socially stable multi-cat households. It also made a great case for trap-neuter-return programs that spayed or neutered community cats, greatly reducing the cause of FIV’s primary vector — cat fights. Silva and I have had several FIV-positive cats in our cattery with no adverse effects on others in the group.

FIV should not be taken lightly, but in most households, it should not be a cause of undue concern. Humans cannot be infected with FIV, and there is now a vaccine to further protect uninfected kitties. In some instances, FIV-positive cats will never show any symptoms of the disease. As the Kansas order states, FIV can be managed under appropriate guidelines.

It may have taken a while, but hats off to Kansas’ Animal Health Commission for opening this lifesaving door for Kansas shelter cats. And, in case you are wondering, our little group of FIV pioneers went on to live long happy lives.

Together, we will Save Them All.
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For more information on managing FIV-positive cats, please read this informative article from Tufts University.

Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society