Dr. Ken Hill stands in his cat supply room in his Water Ways Veterinary Clinic.

Dr. Ken Hill stands in his cat supply room in his Water Ways Veterinary Clinic.

There have been a few cases of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus found in Petersburg cats recently but the two local vets differ on what to do about it. While there is some disagreement they both say that kitty leukemia is more of a concern.

FIV is like AIDS in humans but it’s transmitted solely through blood not sexually.

The contagious disease attacks the cats immune system, making them susceptible to other illnesses. Petersburg Veterinarian Ken Hill says most of the time the disease is fatal but symptoms can take years to appear.

“What’s happening, of course, they might get sick from something else and die from that since they don’t have a very good, functional immune system to fight some of these things off,” Hill says.

Hill has diagnosed two cats in Petersburg with the disease within the last month. Another was diagnosed about three months ago.

“It seems significant that there’s probably much more. That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Hill says.

Hill says there hasn’t been much testing for the disease in Petersburg. He says they’ve probably tested 20 or 30 cats over the last ten years. About four or five of them tested positive. The cats found with FIV were all feral or they were kittens of feral cats.

Hill advises anyone with cats that go outside to get them vaccinated for FIV. If they are solely indoor cats, they can only catch diseases that are in the house.

Steve Lowry, the other vet in town, says not to worry too much about FIV.

“To be honest with you, I don’t feel threatened here in Petersburg by the AIDS virus,” Lowry says.

Lowry says he’s been a veterinarian in nine practices and FIV has never been a major issue.

“I wouldn’t vaccinate my cat,” Lowry says. “I’d never tested my cat. He was an outdoor cat but that was in Montana so there was nothing there of worry either.”

Lowry has worked in Seattle in specialty cat clinics. He says they vaccinated and tested for cat FIV and found it in less than one percent of domestic cats. He says even in an area of high density feral cats the disease doesn’t get that great.

“Eighteen percent of a positive population is about the highest there is in a concentrated cat world and I haven’t been out in the streets but we don’t have that here in my opinion,” Lowry says.

Lowry says he is much more concerned with leukemia in the cat population. Feline leukemia or what’s known as FELV is also a contagious virus that affects the immune system and is more common that FIV in cats.

“Because it can be transferred without injection of virus,” Lowry says.

While FIV is transferred by blood or offspring, leukemia can be transmitted through the cat’s nose and mouth.

Both diseases are species specific and cannot be transmitted to humans.

Hill agrees that leukemia is more of an issue for cats and advises vaccinating for that as well.

Vaccinations for FIV are a three shot series and for leukemia it’s two shots. Vaccines have to be redone once a year to stay current.

Both diseases are diagnosed using the same test. The test consists of a small blood sample and has results in about 10 minutes. The catch is that once the animal is vaccinated for FIV the test will always come back positive for the disease.

“Since that’s true,” Hill says, “what we have to do with animals we vaccinate for FIV we have to chip them. We have to put a microchip in them so we can distinguish when an animal is lost and it happens to come to the vet clinic or some other place, the tendency is if it tests positive for FIV is to put them down and so to avoid that situation, we have to chip them and that way we can get them back to the owner.”

The whole process is not cheap. Testing costs about $55. Chipping is about $65. And then there are the vaccinations on top of that. Hill says it’s a hard disease to wipe out because of the expense.

“To do it right, to test, to chip, to vaccinate and keep up with the vaccination and so not everybody wants to spend the money,” Hill says.

While feline FIV is not treatable leukemia is to some degree, but in both cases, most cats are euthanized because they are contagious.

In general, cats that go outside have a much shorter life than those who stay indoors. Hill says indoor cats have a life expectancy of about 15 years while for cats that go outside it is five years.