Updated: Apr 11, 2019
Guest Blogger: Stephanie Huffman
If someone had told me I would be taking in not one but two cats in the summer of 2014, I would have told them they were crazy. It wouldn’t have been crazy to say I would take in one stray, but to take in two at the same time would be pushing it. Add to it they would test positive for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus? I wouldn’t have been able to imagine how to do it since I already had healthy cats living with me. Yet, that’s exactly what I did.
Grayson was a stray running around my neighborhood for quite some time before I ever got closely involved with him. Over about a year, we'd see him every once in awhile. He would swing by and drink water out of our dog's bowl in the back yard.
During this same time frame, we did some cat sitting for a neighbor who had taken in another neighborhood stray named Molly. Molly was as sweet and friendly as could be and loved being an indoor/outdoor kitty.
As luck would have it, Grayson made a reappearance on our block after having not been seen for quite some time and it seemed he had a bit of a crush on the lovely Molly. He wasn’t the only suitor vying for her affections. Another stray male also started making appearances and they both started stalking her from a distance and, at times, would take a chance of getting close to her.
Molly, of course, was already spayed and having none of it, letting them both know through hissing and swatting she was less than interested. Grayson never really took the hint, deciding he liked her so much that she could swat and hiss all she wanted as long as he could kind of hang out nearby.
Soon after the courting began, the neighbors who owned Molly informed us they were moving out of state and leaving her behind because the wife didn't like that she had accidents outside the litterbox. We felt so awful for Molly that my family and I decided we would start to take care of her as an indoor/outdoor kitty and feed her before her people moved away. Grayson decided to get in on the new buffet his girl crush was enjoying and started hanging around our house.
While Molly physically appeared to be perfectly healthy, Grayson was a bit of another story. He was thin, constantly scratching, and sneezing all the time. He would sit out in the yard and watch us from a distance, never coming too close and waiting to eat until we went in the house. After a few weeks, he'd let me touch him if food was nearby and then finally, one day, he let me put him on my lap to pet him.
I knew he needed vet care since he was finally trusting us. We figured we'd make him an outside cat (since adding one new addition was going to be hard enough with my other cats) and get him all cleaned up, then neutered.
We got him to the vet and had him tested. He came back FIV+ and my heart broke. I'd never had a cat who wasn't free of diseases. I didn't want him to make my cats sick. I immediately began to worry that Molly might be positive as well since they were outside together so much. I didn't know much about how FIV worked. I researched as much as I could in a few hours time before calling my vet and saw maybe a slight chance of hope for him.
Many thoughts went through my head for the safety of my indoor cats because they deserved to be my first priority. I called my vet to ask some questions and she dropped another bombshell on me, when taking x-rays to make sure his upper respiratory infection wasn't worse they'd found several pellets from a BB gun in Grayson’s body. While they weren't causing him any issues, he'd been shot in the past at least six times.
My heart and my resolve to help him were pretty much cemented at that point. He deserved love, not to be turned away, and not to be euthanized because he was sick with a disease I was learning had a stigma attached to it. I was taking a risk with him, but I wanted him to at least know someone cared enough to try.
We took Molly to the vet a few days later and she also tested positive for FIV. What I knew was that as long as they didn’t fight with the others in my house, I could give both Molly and Grayson a chance at a forever home. This meant some patience, planning, and determination (not to mention a few prayers) on introduction with the others in my household as they couldn’t go back outside where they could spread the disease to others if they fought.
I’m happy to say Grayson was a perfect gentleman when he came in (except he wasn't and still isn't a fan of the dog). He got along with all my cats. Molly also did well with everyone except one cat who bullied her. I can say now, present day, they all get along fine and I even introduced a new cat, who is FIV negative, to the house a year after bringing the two of them in. Molly still treats Grayson like he has a case of fleas and Grayson still approaches her with his usual regard of curious nonchalance when she gets grumpy. She likes personal space and he lacks (or chooses to ignore) the manners of graceful acceptance.
If there’s one thing I could tell anyone reading this about FIV+ cats, it’s that it’s not a death sentence. Cats can live long, healthy lives before experiencing issues, if they ever do. Grayson’s immune system was most likely compromised the moment he was shot with the BB gun. I saw him (and couldn’t get near him) at a time when I think the event occurred. The way he walked, I thought he’d been hit by a car. Knowing what I know now, I’m convinced that’s when his body probably was fighting to live and his immune system became weakened as a result of severe injuries. He came to me sickly and it took time to get his system under control again. Today, he’s healthy and could probably stand to lose a few ounces.
Molly, on the other hand, came to us healthy and has continued to stay that way. She’s on a limited ingredient food diet because she has a little bit of food sensitivity, but she also gets regular kitty treats and snacks with minimal issue. She’s very playful and loves being around people. I’ve only had to take her to see the vet when her annual checkups were due.
A few other things I think people should probably know (and you can totally look up or ask a vet about):
FIV is only transmitted from cat to cat. This is usually done through severe aggression (such as a deep bite/puncture wound). Swatting, smacking, or chasing each other is not going to spread the disease.
FIV is not the same as Feline Leukemia, which unfortunately can be spread through sharing bowls, litter boxes, etc. Cats with FIV can share food bowls and litter boxes with cats who don't have the virus.
Cats with FIV are at risk of being euthanized at a much higher rate than cats without the virus.
Cats are already euthanized more frequently than dogs because there are more of them in the United States. When you add an illness, many people immediately think they don’t want the hassle. The animal is viewed as defective, or that it’s quickly going to become sick and die. These only compound a cat’s chances of being euthanized in shelters. Many who test positive won’t even make it out to an adoption floor. I’m hoping that by educating others, cats like Grayson and Molly can find homes that love them in spite of a disease that’s been long misunderstood. I'm hoping it can now be seen with a different point of view.