Furball, a white, long-haired, doll-faced copper-eyed Persian cat, caught my heart the moment I met him. He was only two months old, and had missing fur where his mother had overgroomed him. He became my first pet, my baby, and my best friend.

A short while after we adopted him, tests we had done at the vet clinic indicated that he had two of the most feared infectious diseases among cats: feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant: all I felt I could do was clutch him and cry into his fur.

We eventually learned that Furball’s viruses lay dormant. FIV and FeLV are retroviruses, which means that they integrate their DNA into the host cells’ DNA, according to a 2016 PetMD article by Victoria Heuer. It could take years for this to happen. In the meantime, we had to make sure that we gave him the best and safest life possible for an indoor cat.

Catching FIV and FeLV

While Furball is an indoor cat, the viruses he has are mainly transmitted through fighting, which commonly occurs among intact outdoor cats. The doctors said that Furball probably caught the diseases the less common way, in utero or through nursing. FIV could also be transmitted through a kitten’s passage through its infected mother’s birth canal, while FeLV could be shared via grooming. It is rare for cats to catch the diseases via shared food dishes and litter boxes, according to PetMD’s FIV veterinary reference derived from the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals.

Humans cannot catch FIV or FeLV, but the fact that the viruses are contagious among cats means that we have never allowed other cats to interact with Furball. Cats that we rescue or adopt always stay in a separate room.

Though we were shocked by Furball’s diagnosis, we were told that the viruses are quite common. Many strays have it, but they aren’t diagnosed because they aren’t tested.

Many symptoms, no cure

A cat infected with both diseases could be asymptomatic for years after infection, or they could be ill for a while, then healthy, then ill again. Depending on the cells FeLV alters, the infected cat could experience a number of conditions such as anemia, cancer, or chronic respiratory infections, according to a reference article from Fetch by WebMD. FIV causes immunosuppression, which leaves infected cats vulnerable to secondary infections.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for either virus: doctors can only try to treat the symptoms the viruses present. FeLV can be effectively prevented by a vaccine, so it is recommended for all cats, especially young ones. The effectiveness of the FIV vaccine, on the other hand, is less certain, and can affect the outcome of FIV tests, making it seem like FIV-vaccinated cats are infected with FIV. This does not happen with the FeLV vaccine.

Furball has never been diagnosed with any serious disease as a result of his FIV and FeLV, but even a light cold warrants him a trip to the vet.

I cannot count the number of times we have had to bring my cat to the vet, or how many times I have cried and prayed while waiting for the results of one of his x-rays or blood tests. Learning that your cat has an incurable disease is terrifying, but, with lots of love and care, it is entirely possible to let them lead a normal life.

If your cat has been diagnosed with FIV or FeLV, know that it is not necessary to have them euthanized. Euthanizing healthy FIV or FeLV-positive cat is something even the American Association of Feline Practitioners frowns upon, as detailed in their online resource titled 2008 Feline Retrovirus Management. If your cat does show signs of sickness, medical treatment might be all they need to survive.

My baby boy, Furball, will turn 11 years old this year. He is a strong, brave, curious, and loved as ever. If anything, he is proof that cats with FIV and FeLV can live long, healthy lives.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s July-August 2020 issue.

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