How long does an FIV diagnosis take?

My cat, C4, was involved in a cat fight just more than a week ago. Her tail was swollen, and last Monday night she showed...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  May 3rd 2007

My cat, C4, was involved in a cat fight just more than a week ago. Her tail was swollen, and last Monday night she showed signs of pain and discomfort and we took her to the ER at our local vet. She had an abscess. They cleared out what they could of the infection and gave us a course of antibiotics and pain killers.

She started to look and act a lot better at first, but by Saturday morning she was lethargic and hardly ate. We took her back to the vet, and he told us she still had a fever, and suggested taking a viral test while I waited. 15 minutes later he came to tell me that my cat is testing positive for FIV, and that is why she is struggling to come right.

What I’d like to know is, can it really take as quickly as 15 minutes for a vet to tell me my cat has FIV? Surely they send the blood away for verification/different test methods before they tell a pet owner their cat is infected? I am not sure whether to believe this vet or whether to take it for a second opinion. Until the fight, there had been no signs of her being sick.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Cape Town, South Africa

FIV (short for feline immunodeficiency virus) is also known as feline AIDS. The virus that causes FIV is closely related to HIV, which causes human AIDS. There is no evidence that FIV poses any risk to humans. FIV is present worldwide.

FIV is spread among cats by fighting or, less often, sexual activity. Cats who do not go outside are at almost no risk for the disease. To catch FIV, a cat must be involved in a serious fight in which she is bitten by an infected cat. These types of cat bites frequently also result in an abscess, which is a type of infection.

FIV infection weakens the cat’s immune system. Many cats who are infected show no symptoms and live essentially normal lives. Others, however, suffer from problems such as recurrent or difficult abscesses, or from gum or respiratory infections. It is typical for infected cats to seem perfectly healthy before they are diagnosed. The scenario you describe for C4 is quite typical of the disease.

The most basic screening test for FIV is available at many veterinary hospitals and takes about 15 minutes to run. It is accurate most of the time. However, when a positive diagnosis occurs, many vets (myself included) recommend following up with a more advanced, more accurate, and more expensive test called western blot. This test confirms the diagnosis.

Unfortunately, given that C4 has a history of fighting, as well as an infection that is not responding to appropriate antibiotic therapy, it is very likely that the test your vet ran was accurate.

In areas where combination antiviral therapies are available, human AIDS can be treated with great success. Sadly, cats do not tolerate these therapies. FIV is a disease that, at this time, cannot be treated effectively. However, there is some good news for C4. If you look after her health carefully, treat any problems that develop early on, and keep her indoors so she can no longer be injured by fighting, she is very likely to live a healthy, happy life for several years to come.

There is an additional, important reason to keep C4 inside. If she gets into fights outside, she may spread FIV to other cats. So for her sake, as well as that of the feline world in general, you should not let her out.