By Felicity Goodrich
June 13, 2011
On the morning of November 1, 2008, after our first particularly depressing Halloween in California, my boyfriend Michael and I were all ready waiting outside for the Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary in Sacramento to open. We had arrived early and had another half hour to wait, but we didn’t mind. We needed a cat in our house. We had just moved across the country and were alone, 3,000 miles away from everything we were familiar with. Our apartment still lacked furniture as we were waiting for it to arrive. I couldn’t spend another minute in the house without a feline companion. Both of our cats had crossed over the rainbow bridge our senior year of college, and now over a year later we were finally ready for a new friend.
The shelter opened at 11am and we were the first ones inside, I was immediately swarmed by kitties. I have always been one of those people that cats just gravitate towards; I think I get it from my grandmother. Stray cats wander up to me on the streets and allow me to pick them up and carry them away, they must sense I’m going to feed them and take care of them. I was looking for the perfect cat. At one point a large black and white puff ball jumped into my lap and looked right into my eyes. He had an adorable pink nose and big bright eyes that just begged me to take him with me. His poofy cheeks could have convinced me of almost anything; until one of the shelter volunteers informed me he had FIV. I didn’t think I was ready for that kind of a commitment, I didn’t even know that much about FIV in cats. Mike and I wanted to move abroad in a few years, we had our eyes set on Europe and France, living in the city of lights. I knew that River, no matter how sweet he was, could never be a part of these plans.
In the three years we have shared our lives with River, the only negative response to his FIV we have encountered is from uninformed individuals. We traded vets twice before finding the wonderful Dr Carolyn Standen and her loving generous staff who understood how truly special River is. Whenever he goes in for a dental cleaning or has blood work done, they seem amazed to remember he has FIV. He’s so full of life and energy it’s very easy to forget he’s ‘sick’. We know that they would never recommend he be put down because of his illness as others have suggested. Luckily, they also provide top rate boarding, so when we have to leave him, he and his sister get to stay together in a wonderful environment. Very few places will board River, since many people seem to believe his FIV is airborne and can spread from cat to cat, which simply isn’t true.
While we do know that River’s immune system might not be as strong as another cat his age, we do watch him like a hawk. He eats only the best food and has filtered water fountains with purifiers in them in every room in our house. Whenever he seems a little listless, he gets a boast of over the counter vitamins from the pet store, or a plate of cat milk to make sure he gets his nutrients. Most often he receives a tablespoon of The Missing Link feline formula mixed into his food or Pet-Tabs complete daily vitamin tablet broken up. If anything ever looks off with him, we take him back to the vets to make sure he’s still doing fine. So far though, we’ve never had any problems. Three years later, and River is still doing well and going strong. He’s the sweetest cat we’ve ever known and even his own vet forgets he has FIV. At his next birthday, River will be around seven to eight years old, and we’re planning on having many more years with him and Simone.
River sees his vet once every six months for a regular check up to monitor his weight, teeth, and other vitals. He currently weighs around 12 to 13 pounds and we do our best to keep him in that weight range by monitoring his food. Two years ago River was diagnosed with an unrelated urinary tract disease common in male cats that cause crystals to develop in his bladder and block his system making it difficult for him to relieve himself. Since we watch him so closely, we brought him to the vets within 24 hours of the symptoms appearing. River was put on a special diet to correspond both to this disease and for his FIV. Every night he gets a cup of Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Feline Urinary SO 33 dry cat food and a pouch of Petco’s grain free Soulistic wet food (his favorite is the autumn bounty with chicken and pumpkin), the wet food he usually splits with his sister. The veterinary diet breaks up the crystals and the wet food provides him with plenty of fluids to keep his body well hydrated, which is important for both of his conditions. It is also not uncommon for us to mix in a few tablespoons of organically grown cranberry and papaya digestive supplement with his food or water to help keep his bladder clear.
Cats with FIV are also highly susceptible to gum and tooth decay as a result of their weakened immune systems, so River’s teeth are thoroughly checked out at his six month checkups and undergo regular cleanings at the vets in the event of any decay showing up. While living on the street he chipped his front right fang and will likely lose it one day to prevent bacteria getting into his blood. For the months between his vet visits River receives a weekly application of OraVet plague prevention gel. A small amount of the waxy substance is applied to the roof of his mouth and it works its way down onto his teeth to form a protective barrier that lasts around seven days, three to seven times a week he also receives a small application of OraZn Maxiguard Oral cleansing gel directly onto his gums above his teeth to fight bacteria. Both of these dental cleaning systems were prescribed by his vet to help combat bacteria and decay in his teeth and to avoid daily cleanings which he was not fond of.
Before any major dental cleaning, as well as at his 6 month check up, we have blood work done on River to check the progress of his FIV. While there is not anything in particular to watch for, FIV positive cats have been known to one day test negative and it is also important to know how strong his immune system is every year. So far, River still tests positive, his sister still tests negative, and his body is still holding up strong. There are many things he could one day develop that we must watch for, but as of right now, River, like thousands of FIV positive cats, is in good health. For River, his FIV treatment consists merely of boasted vitamins to his system and aggressive treatment of any minor illness and diseases which develop.
FIV consists of three basic stages in most cases. The first stage occurs 1 to 2 months after contracting the disease and is known as the acute stage. A cat will show signs of depression and fever as their immune system is first attacked by the disease. This is the warning sign to you to get your cat tested and to begin treatment. The second stage, or sub-clinical stage, occurs after 4 weeks of having the disease and can last an indeterminate amount of time. River himself is currently in this stage of the disease. The cat returns to normal healthy activity and shows no signs of illness or FIV. In many cases it will appear as though the disease has vanished completely. Some cats may never progress out of this stage into the third final stage of the disease. While a cat with FIV is far less likely to develop AIDS like symptoms than an HIV infected human, there are several diseases that are common to develop if the disease does progress in the final stages of a cats life, known as the Chronic Stage, including stomatitis, odontoclasia, periodontitis, gingivitis, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, pneumonitis, enteritis, and dermatitis.
It is also highly important to keep an FIV positive cat’s flea medication current and up to date. Fleas and parasites are a major transmitter of diseases and flea bites may become infected themselves. River and his sister are both on a monthly dosage of Revolution provided by their vet. It is always best to get flea medication from the vet’s office and not from pet supply stores, even if it is more expensive, it is the safer route to go for the cat. We do our best to keep River from hunting any bugs which might bite or sting him to cut down on open wounds that could become infected, but in the case that he does get cut and have an exposed sore, we clean it with over the counter pet antibiotic cleansers and bandage it. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, or if the wound is too big or too deep, it is best to take the cat to the vets for this as well.
In the veterinary and animal rescue world there is no general consensus as to whether cats with FIV should be euthanized or not. In my opinion, there is no need to euthanize cats in the first or second stages of the disease, as they are perfectly healthy, normal cats by all possible standards. Once the final stage is reached it is up to the family to make the tough decision themselves. One day, River may progress to this third stage, and although it is very scary to think about, in some ways, it makes it easier to approach. River has FIV. If it ever develops into the third chronic stage, we will know that his quality of life is going to drop quickly and harshly. We will be ready to help him when and if this final stage finally comes, and his FIV status will help us make the final decision. FIV infects between 2 and 5% of the feline population, and I do know, there is no reason to put down 2 to 5% of cats who are perfectly healthy just because one day they might become sick. All cats eventually become sick and it is likely that we will outlive many of our beloved pets. The fact that they will one day leave us, is not a good enough reason to me to put them down now or pass on adopting them. Prior to 1986, we weren’t even aware such a disease existed. It is likely many people had FIV positive cats prior to 1986 and weren’t even aware of it. FIV occurs naturally in the wild, it’s common among African lions and larger feline species. River is just another normal cat, who happens to have FIV. If I were to show you my two cats without any background information, I imagine you’d have a hard time guessing which one of them was sick and which one of them was healthy.
That afternoon at Happy Tails we signed the adoption papers and loaded River and Simone into the car to go to their new forever home. Paris, France has stood for hundreds of years, it isn’t going anywhere. Mike and I are both young, we have a long life ahead of us. River bonded with us that day, and he needs us right now. We wish more than anything we could take him overseas, but that simply isn’t the case. A cat with FIV cannot cross international boundaries and a cat that has lived with a cat with FIV has a quarantine period. River will live out his very long full rich life here in America with Simone and us. There’s no question about that. River is more important than anything else. I wouldn’t trade him for anything in this world.
January 2016: As I watch River sleeping next to me on the sofa five years after I wrote this original article about him, I am struck by how little has changed in the great scheme of things. When we adopted River, we were never sure how much time we would have with him as a result of his disease, but I’m very happy to report that so far, all is well. In the five years that have passed we have had very few if any problems with River’s health. He broke a fang which had to be surgically removed giving him a crooked smile and his urinary crystals flared up two years ago resulting in a late night vet visit, but neither of those problems are related to his FIV status. His eyes have become more sensitive in recent days and he occasionally looks like he’s crying, but our vet assures us this is nothing to be concerned about. Health wise, we haven’t seen any major concerns develop as a result of his FIV status. He slowed down a bit, but he is also a senior citizen by this point in his life, so that’s to be expected. While he’s more often found lounging on a lap these days, he still has his energetic moments and is still a playful, purring, sweetheart. He and his sister (who, by the way, is still FIV negative) are still a devoted and bonded pair who are never far from one another. While we consider ourselves lucky to have shared our home with River for the past eight years, we hope to have many more years with him, despite his FIV status. I can safely say that we have never once regretted bringing him into our hearts and home.
Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary, Sacramento
Cat Clinic of Folsom
FIV support groups
River’s Gift Shop – Happy River Dances Homemade Catnip Toys