Categories: FIV

How Do Cats Get AIDS?

This is Timmy. He is or was a stray cat who got into fights. He got abscesses which were fixed by my vet and he was at risk of acquiring FIV. I have not seen him for years.

The answer is relatively straightforward although the best book on cat health1doesn’t provide a definitive and confident answer. There is some uncertainty on transmission. And that also applies to the Cornell website.

The FIV virus is shed in saliva.

Therefore Cat bites are a source of transmission of the virus which causes AIDS (aka FIV). Note: “AIDS” is a layman’s term for FIV which stands for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Infection. The bite delivers the saliva carrying the virus and deposits it under the skin a bit like a hypodermic needle delivering a vaccination.

Bites are more likely to occur in outside, unneutered cats who fight over territory, which is why at the date of this post, there are several articles in the British online news media about a potential cat AIDS epidemic because there are an estimated 880,000 cats in the UK who are not neutered.

I have no idea how they arrived at that figure. Also, although a free roaming unneutered cat will be at a greater risk of getting FIV, it does not mean he’ll get it. It is a heightened risk factor. The reason for this statement is that tom cats fight more. That said male cats who have been neutered also fight.

USA statistics tell us that in the general cat population the incidence of feline AIDS is 2-4 percent while that figure rises to 3-5 percent for outdoor cats. We can see therefore that the greater risk of an unneutered cat getting feline AIDS is not that huge. The big risk is with outdoor male cats coming into conflict over territory.

A second possible way (on rare occasions) of transmission is when an infected mother passes the virus to her unborn kittens.

Contact between cats appears to be an inefficient route for transmission. It must be a potential route according to Cornell but they appear to be uncertain as mentioned. Cats in multi-cat homes should be tested for FIV.

Also, at a much lower level of risk, it would seem that allogrooming (mutual grooming between cat associates) could at least potentially or very rarely transmit the disease from one to the other because a cat’s saliva is deposited on another cat where it could be licked off by that cat. This is based on what I have read from reliable sources. I sense that the medical profession are not completely clear on this subject.

To return to the scaremongering news articles about an epidemic of feline AIDS. These stories are slightly ignorant or worse. It is sensible to highlight the risk to free roaming unneutered male cats but to overdo it simply makes people unjustifiably nervous about FIV (perhaps that is a good thing on second thoughts). Obviously male cats should be neutered and the major reason for it is to stop them creating more cats as we have enough already, something we are constantly reminded of.

Note 1: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook pages 93-94 (third edition)

Please comment here using either Facebook or WordPress (when available).
Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments


    FIV is a virus. It causes depletion of the feline immune system. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is NOT a disease, but can leave the cat open to infections, that other cats, who do not carry FIV would be able to deal with easily. FIV causes a syndrome of response to infection. That's what the S stands for.

    The term that is accurate is FIV AIDS and for humans HIV AIDS.

    FIV lives for about 5 seconds outside of the cat's body. I think you are getting confused with FeLV which as a virus is also known as "The Friendly Disease" FeLV can live for longer outside of the cats body, particularly in saliva. Cats who groom each other can pass the FeLV virus on via that method.

    Allogrooming cats in mixed FIV+ & FIV- populations DO NOT PASS THE VIRUS TO EACH OTHER. Whatever source you are using has, as is so often the case, mixed up transfer vectors for FIV and FeLV. There are a lot of vets and veterinary nurses who cling to this lazy merging of viral contagion. Again it leads to cats being killed needlessly.

    Celia Hammond Trust have had a large mixed status colony living together since the early 1990s, there has not been one case of cross infection.

    Early studies were lax and now dismissed as poor quality and inaccurate.

    The article in The Daily Mirror was both inaccurate and encouraged hysteria. The standard of journalism there is appalling.

    This article, will lead to even more cats who test positive to FIV but are otherwise healthy being killed on the advice of ignorant vets and veterinary nurses.

    Michael, you have covered this subject in the past and agreed not to perpetuate the hysteria.

    Why on earth is it a good thing for people to be nervous of FIV? Why not seek to educate and print the truth about the virus, instead of adding to ignorance and hysteria, which results in cats being killed.

    If you are going to write articles about FIV, please at least seek out the most accurate and RECENT research from Universities such as Glasgow. Or perhaps contact CatWork Sanctuary. They have so much knowledge and experience in this matter and are always willing to advise.

    Often, books about cat care for cat owners are parsimonious with the truth, dependant on the prejudice & education of the author.

    FIV was only discovered and described in the early 1980s. The only reason that the research garnered any attention was that it was hoped by HIV researchers that FIV would be a useful model to study HIV.

    FIV is a much weaker virus than HIV and it turned out to be useless for research. The tabloids got hold of the research and the very first headline was "YOUR CAT HAS AIDS" (The Sun)

    Many species have Immunodeficiency viruses, including simians.

    It is so irresponsible to keep calling it CAT AIDS.

    If you took 1000 cats who tested positive for the virus. 1000 cats who tested negative for the virus and had 1000 untested cats as a control, then tracked them through their lives and recorded what carried them off this mortal coil, you would not be able to discern the difference in all three groups.

    The reality is, that all cats should have good care at all times. Cats who carry FIV need a little extra vigilance if they get any kind of illness. All that means is that they may require slightly more aggressive treatment.

    Stress is a massive killer of cats. Stress will often cause FIV to fire up and possibly cause a disease event. All cats, FIV+ or not are prone to stress related health conditions. Surely better to educate the cat owning public to provide all cats with low stress care and good welfare?

    The usual scenario is that the cat is tested using an ELISA snap test at the vets, in house. A confirmatory PCR or IFA test is rarely offered, it should be. False positives are not unknown and a PCR or IFA will allow the responsible owner and educated vet to determine the best regime of care for the individual cat. Usually, after one stick test, vet then recommends that the cat is killed, despite being healthy. This is killing for convenience and money. Nothing more. Often stray cats brought in for neutering are neutered first, then blood tested, then comes the bill with a recommendation that the cat is killed.

    Vets in the UK can be very disdainful of the potential of cat owners to accept true education and learn how to give their cat a good life, either indoors or with supervised/contained access outdoors.

    The shallow ignorance of many veterinary support staff is appalling.

    Many, many small UK cat rescues and branches of Cats Protection (also the PDSA and RSPCA) have cats killed on one stick test, without so much as drawing breath and taking time to think. This is a disgusting state of affairs. I implore you to ring Barbara at Catwork and ask her about the indescriminate killing of cats in UK rescues. Ask her about the 6 ginger cats, cared for by a small rescue, kept as a small, secure colony, then one day, killed. For no reason other than convenience. Go on ring her. Tell her Jane the pest suggested you call.

    Michael, you are an advocate for cats aren't you? Cats need all the help they can get, articles where FIV is mooted as AIDS, does not help cats, nor does it help people understand what FIV is.

    This attitude to FIV spreads to make life difficult for humans with HIV too.

    *eye roll*



    • The reason why I called it "AIDS" is because the title is a search term on Google. If I am to attract visitors I should use keywords. I explain what AIDS means. You are being far to harsh.

      I have searched on the Glasgow Uni website for info on transmission of FIV and found nothing.

    • Thanks Everycat for your comprehensive comment. I referred to the news article but the article itself is based on a veterinary source. The source material is excellent. As FIV is a virus it has to be classified as a disease. Sorry but I disagree with you on that point.

      The article is balanced and sensible in my view and I have criticised the news article as I always do.

      • You really aren't up to date on it Michael.

        You are perpetuating ignorance and fear. Your source material is out of date and incorrect. You don't seem to understand about retroviruses at all.

        Shame on you.

        • Everycat, I am not sure what you are upset about nor why you are being so critical of me. The article is very low key and does not spread fear or perpetuate ignorance in my opinion. It is about one aspect of FIV - transmission. Tell me how it is transmitted.

          Cornell say this:

          "The primary mode of transmission is through bite wounds. Casual, non-aggressive contact does not appear to be an efficient route of spreading FIV; as a result, cats in households with stable social structures where housemates do not fight are at little risk for acquiring FIV infections."

          This implies that transmission could occur through casual contact which means it could occur through allogrooming. It is saying that non-aggressive contact is not an efficient route. This means it is an inefficient route which in turn means it is a potential route. Cats in stable structured multicat homes are at "little risk" - this means there is at least a potential risk of transmission in non-aggressive contact.

          Argue against that will you please.

        • Well then if that is the case, I'd be very appreciative if you wrote an article on the same subject and I'll publish it.

  • In a perfect world, all cats would be cared for and spayed and neutered. We will NEVER live in a perfect world. The bird organizations and PETA have been deliberately exaggerating both the numbers of feral cats and their danger as disease bearing or causing the deaths of other wildlife (particularly birds) for years. The truth is that they hate cats and want them all dead. I hate that FIV exists, but their use of it to condemn all outdoor and feral cats as one of their reasons to oppose TNR programs is absurd.

Recent Posts

5000 cats, dogs and other animals die in shipping boxes

There will be no pictures (there are pictures but I won't publish them) and before…

17 mins ago

Amazing video: cat copies her owner’s complex movements

Although we know that cats can be trained to do things, in this video you…

1 hour ago

Pet savings account to pay for self-insurance

A designated pet savings account at your bank is a good way to manage self-insurance…

2 hours ago

How to better protect your companion animal on your death

In the immediate aftermath of your perhaps untimely and unforeseen death, you would like your…

6 hours ago

Are packing peanuts safe for cats?

It is difficult to provide a straightforward answer to the question in the title. However,…

10 hours ago

Do cats’ paws fall asleep?

In other words, do cats get pins-and-needles in their feet? We don't know the answer…

11 hours ago