Believe it or not, Dubai’s cat population is at risk from its own version of the Aids virus. Veterinarian Dr Monique Strange explains how to protect your feline friends.
Feline Aids – is that really what it sounds like?
Yes, in that it’s a virus very similar to the human Aids virus. It’s incorporated into the cat’s body cells and it causes immunosuppression, so basically it wipes out the immune system. But it’s important to point out that it’s species specific: it will infect only cats. Although they’re using FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) as a model for research into HIV, this virus is absolutely not transmissible to humans.
Is it fatal?
Not necessarily. There are cats who become FIV positive and remain FIV positive for life and nothing much goes wrong with them: I’ve seen cats who are 18 years old who were diagnosed when they were two and nothing has happened to them to shorten their life span. But there’s a set of cats who will get HIV and will get immediate immune problems. Others will see problems down the line. In any case, as in humans, it’s not necessarily the virus that kills: it’s the complications that can arise: the pneumonia and opportunistic infections.
What are the symptoms?
Some cats have no symptoms, but you want to keep an eye out for the usual signs of the immune system having been compromised. The mouth is a particularly susceptible area. If your cat has very bad teeth then they need to be looked at. FIV positive cats can react badly to the ordinary infections that result from the scratches and bites – they should go on broad spectrum antibiotics straight away.
What should I do if I’m worried I have an infected cat?
First of all, don’t panic: this is easily managed. If you’re worried because you’ve got a cat that’s been in a couple of fights and has lost a bit of weight you can bring it in for a blood test. You’ll know in 10 minutes.
How is FIV spread?
As in humans, there’s mother-to-kitten transmission in utero, but it’s usually a saliva- to-blood transmission, spread predominantly through fighting and biting, which is why it seems to be a stray cat problem. If a stray cat bites and mangles your little pet cat then there is a chance that it can get infected with feline Aids.
So this isn’t a case of safer sex for moggies?
If the virus is spread sexually then it tends to be because the male has bitten the back of the female’s neck during intercourse.
Kinky. Why are cats in Dubai so susceptible?
There are lots of stray cats in Dubai, and they’re always biting each other because they’re so territorial. In experiments, cats have been fitted with GPS trackers to see how far they go and an uncastrated male tomcat has a territory of about five square kilometres. They think of that area as their own: some cats they’ll tolerate in that area and some cats they’ll fight off. Unlike in other countries, domestic cats in the UAE are often allowed to roam free. When a new cat moves to the area there will be more fights because the balance of the cat population is affected. Also, when people feed strays they’re more likely to reproduce. If the cat is FIV positive it may go on to have kittens with FIV.
Is there a vaccine to prevent this?
There is one in existence, but most cat specialists don’t advocate its use. It was pushed through early and the science is very equivocal – the jury is still out.
Do cats with FIV have to be put down?
Ten years ago the recommendation was to put them to sleep, but nowadays the strategy is to isolate them as far as possible: to prevent the spread of the disease by keeping them as single pet cats rather than resorting to euthanasia.
If I have a cat with FIV, are the rest of my cats at risk?
Only if they fight with each other. I have a few clients with FIV positive cats who have another cat that isn’t FIV positive and they don’t fight so they’re fine to be left together. But if they’re having dreadful skin-ripping fights that cause abscesses then you’ll want to keep them apart. But you’d probably do that anyway! As a responsible cat owner you will want to limit the infected cat’s exposure to the outside world in order to help contain the spread of the virus.
Dr Strange practises at Al Safa Veterinary Clinic (04 348 firstname.lastname@example.org)