FIV is here on island
FIV, or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, is the cat version of HIV/AIDS, and yes, this virus is present on the island. In cats, there is a second retrovirus, FeLV or Feline Leukemia Virus, that is also present on the island. Like HIV, cats infected with FeLV or FIV can appear healthy and remain asymptomatic for months and years before infection becomes apparent. Or not. Once infected with FeLV or FIV, most cats will eventually become immunocompromised and ill and die sooner than they might have if they hadn’t come into contact with the virus.
There is a vaccine for FeLV, but (a) it is not 100 percent protective, and (b) it is an injection which needs to be repeated annually, which is simply impractical in certain populations. There is not at present an effective vaccine for FIV. The only certain way of preventing infection is avoidance. Spaying and neutering decreases reproductive drive and fighting between cats, but it does not completely eliminate such behaviors. Therefore, even spayed and neutered cats are at risk for becoming infected if there is direct contact and transfer of bodily fluids with an infected cat.
Both FeLV and FIV are present in the feral cat population on the island. It is a reality for Big Island cats. Some colonies have fared better than others, but as colonies get larger and begin to overlap, disease spreads, period. Where there used to be known “hot spots,” I now encounter cats who test positive in many more communities once thought to be relatively insulated. In one small colony I was involved in monitoring, 30 percent of the colony went from “negative” to “positive” within the first year after the first positive cat was detected. All cats in this group were spayed and neutered. They were not contained, so they had plenty of opportunity to avoid each other, yet virus was transmitted. As the citizen (Virginia Maxwell) whose letter to the editor prompted this article wrote, “Humans can be educated about their infectious conditions and be instructed on how to limit contamination. They can be held responsible. Cats can’t. Cats do what cats do.”
Several years ago, the Hawaii Island Humane Society adopted a policy of testing all stray and feral cats for FeLV and FIV and euthanizing those that tested positive. They have endured a lot of criticism for this protocol; but without islandwide community support, the lives that are sacrificed are not making a big enough difference because there are still many other infected cats out there continuing to perpetuate transmission.
There are consequences to ignoring the fact these diseases do exist and are permeating the entire island and indiscriminately affecting all felines — ferals, strays and pets. The number of feral and stray cats on the island is indeed a concern; however, do we really want FeLV and FIV to be the principle means of population control? And what about the effect on human public health? FeLV and FIV are not transmissible to humans; however, they can make affected cats more susceptible to ringworm, scabies, roundworms, hookworms, bartonella, and other diseases, which are zoonotic or transmissible to humans.
There is no win-win answer. There are no simple solutions. As a veterinarian who entered into the profession to save lives, I hate “playing God” and euthanizing healthy appearing animals because of a blue dot on a blood test.
On the other hand, practicing in a place where more cats are positive than negative and the average life expectancy for a cat is half the national average isn’t something I relish either. We’re not at this stage yet, but FeLV and FIV are prevalent enough on the island that it is a requisite diagnostic consideration for any sick cat until proven otherwise.
I believe there needs to be more awareness and more open discussion about FeLV and FIV on the island and what to do about it. I can’t say I expect a peaceful resolution, but at least if it is on the table, more people will have an opportunity to consider and weigh in on this ethical dilemma that will affect more and more pets, their families, the public health and our island ecosystem.
Shannon Nakaya, DVM