5 Misconceptions That Give Retroviruses the Advantage

There are multiple retroviruses that can infect cats. While many cat guardians are not familiar with the classification of retrovirus, others may be well aware of the two I will discuss here:

FeLV and FIV are generally fatal infectious diseases in felines; while less common than they were in the past, they are still all-too-frequently reported.

There are several misconceptions about these diseases and resulting confusion about risk factors, symptoms, prognosis and management of the diseases. Simply put, it’s easy to mistakenly believe that your cat is protected from FeLV or FIV. By reading the five questions and answers I’ve included here, you’ll better understand how retroviruses sneak up on your cat and how you can prevent them.

1. My cat’s never had any infections before; can I assume she has a higher resistance?
No, just because your cat has always appeared healthy doesn’t mean she’s protected. Age is a significant risk factor of FeLV and FIV. Because retroviruses can be spread “vertically” (from mother to offspring) kittens can be infected very early. The virus can reproduce very rapidly in kittens and cause severe disease among young cats. Some infected cats manage to suppress the virus for a time. Both viruses can have long periods before the actual onset of symptoms. Similarly both viruses can result in chronic carrier states where the cat may be free of clinical signs – in other words, appear outwardly healthy, but is shedding infective virus1.   

2. All cats have the same risk of infection right?
Not true, sexually intact males are at greater risk of infection than females. This may well be due to the fact that intact males are prone to fighting, and the exchange of bodily fluids is one of the ways these viruses are spread. Not surprisingly, outdoor cats have a greater risk of infection also2; again, because they interact with and fight with cats that are infected.

3. I just got a new kitten, is she protected because she’s young?
No, all cats are potentially at risk for FeLV and FIV. Newly acquired cats especially should be tested regardless of age.

4. My cat seems perfectly healthy, I would see symptoms if she was sick right?
Not necessarily, guardians are frequently surprised when their seemingly healthy cat tests positive for FeLV or FIV. These viruses both infect otherwise healthy cats and, according to the European Advisory Board on Cat Diseases, clinical signs can be extremely variable. In fact some cats persistently infected with FIV and FeLV never develop symptoms and appear to be healthy.

5. Healthy looking cats can’t spread the disease, right?
I’m sorry to say that they can. Infected cats may appear normal for years. However, shedding and transmission need not involve disease at all, just the presence of the virus. For that reason positive tests should be rechecked and negative tests should be checked yearly in at risk cats.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.


  1. Hartmann, Katrin. Viruses 4 (2012): 2684-710. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.
  2. "FIV & FeLV Prevalence: Success Story—but More to Be Done." Clinician’s Brief Journal (n.d.): n. pag. Web. Oct. 2006. 


Reviewed on: 
Friday, April 20, 2018