More Cats Would Be Adopted If Everyone Knew These Facts About FIV And FeLV

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For a cat that’s living the lonely shelter life, the odds are already against them. But for a cat that’s living the shelter life with an illness, the odds are even higher that they’ll ever find a furever home. Many cat owners are familiar with FIV and FeLV, but not all know the differences between the two. For starters, FIV and FeLV are not the same thing.

FIV stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus; FeLV is the Feline Leukemia Virus. These two viruses are commonly confused because they are both retroviruses that can infect felines.

Retrovirus: a type of virus that causes disease by inserting itself into the genome (DNA) of its host. 

In humans, the most well-known retrovirus is HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus. While there are several different types of retroviruses known to man, they have different symptoms and ramifications that affect the infected individuals in a unique way. The different effects are felt on the organisms they infect, but no two retroviruses are identical in how the body deals with them.

It’s important to note that each cat’s body is unique and will respond differently once infected with FIV or FeLV.

What Makes FIV and FeLV Different?

FIV and FeLV are in the same family (Retroviridae), but are different types of retroviruses. FIV is a lentivirus and FeLV is a gamma-retrovirus. They can be thought of as distant cousins in the family tree of retroviruses. It is because of this that the symptoms and progression of the two diseases are quite different.

The first major difference is that FIV is a lentivirus. This means that it has an extended incubation period and can lay dormant with suppressed symptoms for many years. While it does affect a cat’s general health, it is most certainly not an immediate death sentence. Many cats living with FIV have a good quality of life, are affectionate, curious, playful and wonderful cats. I mean, think of Marmalade, for a shining example!

FIV is a slow moving retrovirus. While it does attack they body, it’s more of a marathon spread than a quick sprint, to put it in casual terms. Most cats with FIV lead normal, healthy lives and show no symptoms for many years (if at all). When a cat with FIV crosses the rainbow bridge, it is generally due to complications of another illness. Their immune systems are suppressed and caused them to be more susceptible to secondary illnesses.

When it comes to FeLV, this is what is called a gamma-virus, and while also a retrovirus, it is far removed from FIV.

Cats with FeLV can have a variety of illnesses, ranging from anemia to leukemia and other cancers (or they may show no symptoms at all for many years – it just depends on the strain of the virus and how well the cat’s immune system reacts to it)

With FeLV, it moves through a cat’s immune system at a much faster rate than FIV, but many cats can still life for several months to years once contracting the virus. It is not as contagious as some might think, and it is most commonly spread from wounds, bites, and prolonged contact with an infected feline. It is less likely to spread from shared food/water bowls and litter boxes, but there is still the slim chance that this could be a possibility for felines sharing close quarters with FeLV infected felines.

How Can I Prevent My Cat From Contracting FeLV?

Thankfully for us concerned cat owners, there is a FeLV vaccine that has proven itself highly effective from this deadly virus. (Cats are routinely given this vaccine as early as 8-12 weeks of age, so chances are your cat received this as a kitten should you have gotten them from a rescue/shelter.)

For cats that have been properly vaccinated, the chances of them contracting the disease from an infected cat is highly unlikely. Therefore, keeping a cat in your home that is vaccinated, and giving a FeLV cat a chance to live out their final months or years in a loving forever home is something that you may consider without worrying that you’ll be putting your cat’s health at risk.

How Is FIV Transmitted?

Some might think that close contact is how FIV is spread, but this is entirely untrue. For FIV to be transmitted to another cat, it is done so from a deep puncture wound that breaks the skin barrier. These are not the playful little nibbles that cats will exhibit during those fun little cat battles. They’re more the kind that a cat would do during an aggressive fight, i.e. a territory dispute.

For this reason, as well as the longevity of a cat’s life living with FIV, it’s crucial that they are kept indoors. A stress-free environment where the spread of disease can be contained and monitored.

Symptoms of FIV include:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Disheveled coat
  • Poor appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Abnormal appearance or inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
  • Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis)
  • Inflammation of the mouth (stomatitis)
  • Dental disease
  • Skin redness or hair loss
  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Frequent urination, straining to urinate or urinating outside of litter box
  • Behavior change

Another less common way in which FIV is spread is from an FIV-infected mother cat to her kitten. (This is what happened to Marmalade below) But please know that FIV has NOT been found to spread through sharing food bowls and litter boxes, social grooming, sneezing and other casual modes of contact.

We hope that this information could help influence a cat lover to consider adopting a cat living with FIV or FeLV. They deserve to live out the rest of their days–however long that may be–in a loving home rather than a lonely shelter.

Do your part for cats in need living with FIV and FeLV! If you don’t have room to adopt another cat, help to advocate for them. Be sure everyone knows that they can have a voice and hopefully, a home.


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  1. I don’t know about FiV, but FeLV can be passed on from the cat’s mother. After two years, I lost an inside cat from FeLV. It was a shock to me and my veterinarian.

  2. We took in a stray this year who tested positive for FIV. He gets along great with our other cats and is turning into a playful snuggle bunny. We are grateful we can give him a good stable caring home.

  3. Thank you for such an infornative article. I have nine felv+ kitty’s.

    I have recently retiered from years of rescue. I made the decision to keep these because the felv+ had little or no chance of finding home’s.
    They appear happy healthy cats, I hope they will have long lives.
    They range in age between 12 months and nine years. All rescues.

    I would say to anyone with a big heart that’s considering adopting a shelter kitty seriously consider one with ” special needs” such a rewarding thing to do.

    Special needs or not, please adopt before purchasing from a pet shop or breeder.

  4. I have a cat who is felv positive.. She
    is 3 years old. Recently I discovered large widespread masses on her mammary glands. I was so worried. Had masses removed and sent for biopsy. Happy to report the masses are benign. She has a severe mammary gland infection. I give her nhvnaturalpet supplements for felv and an anti tumor supplement. I believe they have really helped her. I also have other cats. They are all healthy and well.

  5. This article was recommended to me and, as someone who volunteers at a cat shelter with FIV and FeLV cats, I was so glad to see it! The shelter where I volunteer has it’s own room for the FeLV cats, which I often get assigned to take care of, and a lot of them are very sweet loving kitties that I wish I could take home! Unfortunately, since they don’t get adopted as often as other cats it’s not that uncommon for one to end up staying at the shelter for the rest of it’s days. I really hope that spreading information about the virus will encourage more people to consider giving them a chance!

    Another noteworthy tidbit of information about the Feline Leukemia Virus is that the virus can’t survive outside of a cat’s body for very long! The longest I’ve heard the virus could live was a couple of days, but most information I’ve read about it says that it can typically only survive for a few minutes to a few hours. So for anyone reading this who’s concerned about accidentally spreading the germs, you can rest easy!

    • I brought in a stray in the fall who tested FeLV+. After clearing up a respiratory infect he had, he is doing great. He was finally neutered a few weeks ago, and if it wasn’t for the fact the snap test had been done on him, he shows no signs of being +. For as long as he has, he will be one of my 3 pampered fur-babies

  6. One of my cats was given the vaccine and she became ill and died. I did some google research and saw that this vaccine is not recommended by vets in the USA. Of course I am not suggesting that nobody should vaccinate their cats. I fully support vaccination of children even though some people have doubts about it. My cat was probably a one in a million chance. Any thoughts?

  7. I want to start by saying….what an amazing article. I’ve only just learned about the life of these wonderful loving normal kitties. That being said I want to mention about our (me and my hubby) recent kitty adoption of 4 loving fur babies. While we did not adopt a FIV or FeLV cat we did adopt 4 adorable sweethearts from largest No-Kill Shelter in Atlanta Ga called Furkids who specialize in adopting FIV & FeLV cats and kittens. They are wonderful about educating owners to be about each of them and how to take care of their issues when they arise. They also educate and abdicate for more shelters not to put them down but either find them homes or if at all possible transfer them to their facility. The worker at Furkids took us through each room (the cats are not in kennels unless they are being quarantined for sickness surgery or are being introduced to the new room they will live in) from the seniors, adults, kittens and special needs to the FIV-FeLV rooms. They are all normal sweet, fun loving sweethearts and deserve so much of a normal life. I hope by this article being posted that people will see what amazing kitties they are! (If anyone is interested in the Atlanta area for adopting such special babies go to

    • They sound wonderful <3 We'll check out their site and purrhaps find some stories of theirs to share with the world =) Thank you for what you did for your 4 furbabies!

  8. We found a stray kitten and he turned out to be FeLV positive. I was terrified because the vet lead me to believe that all of my cats are now infected and all had death sentences. I now see a different vet and thankfully, my 3 cats tested negative (thank you vaccines!) and my boy is living a happy, well loved life. He’s a great kitten and I’m so glad we’re giving him the chance to be loved until his time comes ❤️

  9. I have a 7(ish) year old male cat with FIV. He’s been positive for the virus for at least 4 years (initially tested negative at the rescue, then was positive on re-check) and despite co-habitating closely with another cat at the rescue for years, she remains negative (I ended up adopting both of them). His teeth are in great shape, and he is a robust 15 lb boy who remains vigorously healthy. I do believe there was a study that came out a few years ago demonstrating that all-cause mortality and lifespan was not significantly affected in FIV cats. Fortunately, more and more shelters and rescues seem to be aware of this, and no longer euthanize these cats immediately.

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Written by Modi Ramos

Crazy cat lady since birth and lover of all things feline. Owner of CattitudeDaily and former Editor of iHeartCats. Meow!

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