Gonzo in grass

GONZO’S STORY: Why test for FeLV and FIV? Why retest?


Gonzo was the much-beloved cat once rescued from the streets of Tallahassee, Florida at the age of approximately 6 months.  He had been hit by a car sometime in the early months of his life and was living with a deformed left hind leg and a broken tail that was no longer covered with live tissue.  He was presented to the clinic where Dr. Daniels was working as a potential euthanasia from the Animal Control officers.  However, when placed on the counter top, he walked over, flopped on his back and purred.  That was it!  Dr. Daniels amputated his tail and neutered him;  Dr. Fullerton did a salvage procedure to preserve his left hind leg;  and he was one of those “foster failures” who never left.  Gonzo traveled with Dr. Daniels to every major city and job she has had, went on multiple trips, and used to ride “shotgun” in the large animal veterinary truck routinely when Doc was a large animal mobile vet.  He had many health issues including severe allergies to everything and IBD.


As you can imagine, from the time he was a kitten Gonzo had the best vet care possible :)  He had been tested for FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus) and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) every year of his life.  He was vaccinated against Leukemia.  Gonzo was an indoor/outdoor cat, but approximately 85% indoors and was never out overnight.

Gonzo was what you might call a “high maintenance cat”….he had a severe calicivirus infection as a young cat that took over a year to resolve, had suspected intestinal inflammatory bowel disease, had to have his right hip joint removed at the University of Florida, had severe arthritis, and extreme allergies to fleas, pollens, trees, and grasses.  He also had a bizarre upper respiratory and undiagnosed throat inflammatory process for several years at the age of about 10 yrs, and he had chronic rhinitis since kittenhood.  BUT he was always relatively healthy in spite of all of this for most of his life.

In April of 2013 at the approximate age of 13, Gonzo began to have a poor appetite, his coat became dull, he seemed to have a chronic mild ocular crusting respiratory condition that no other cat in the house had.  He had begun to lose weight.  When routine blood screening, urinalysis, and x-rays were performed, Dr. Daniels was devastated to find out that he had become positive for FIV (the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus).  Interestingly enough, in the later part of his life he spent much more time inside so you might think his exposure would be even less…..  He was tested and swabbed with the IDEXX upper respiratory PCR and discovered to have a concurrent Mycoplasma infection (a correlation has been seen with these two conditions in literature).  He was under treatment and improved, but after this diagnosis he was managed a little differently and just like a human with HIV virus, he was more prone to infections or some cancers.  If your cat comes up positive for FIV and you are suspicious of the result, repeat the test or send the blood off for a confirmatory IFA test (or best is PCR) to prove it was not a false positive.  But, one negative does not mean your cat will always test negative.


At some point when he was outside, he was most likely bitten during a cat fight by an infected stray cat, but since the virus is called a retrovirus and may take some time between infection and clinical signs, there is no way to know when exactly he was bitten.  It is interesting that he did not ever have any memorable “cat fight wounds” that were noticed except for the occasional scratch on the face.


All too often I hear “Well my cat was tested before and was negative so we don’t need to do that again.”  FALSE.  Especially with regard to FIV virus (and FeLV), if your cat has ever been outside at all, it would only take one bite to infect her or him for life.  It is recommended that all cats from all households be tested routinely based on exposure, these two tests are often grouped together in a combination package.  Also remember that an inside cat only exposed to one other indoor/outdoor cat is still at a risk for transmission, although it is not as likely as the household transmission of Feline Leukemia.


This test is crucial for your cat’s health.  The first test should be as a kitten or a new cat in your family.  If you get a negative test, it is crucial to retest in at least 6 to 8 months later (especially if a kitten); two negative tests are better than just one.  Additionally, Feline Leukemia is also associated with a compromised immune system, the formation of cancers (commonly one called lymphoma), and can easily be spread from cat to cat in a household through mutual grooming, food and water dishes, urine (litter boxes), and by human hands involving secretions.


Unfortunately no treatments at this time are curative.  However, mixed results with regard to quality of life have been achieved with the use of some protocols including vaccination and interferon and antivirals; discuss with your veterinarian.  Especially in the younger cats and kittens testing positive for FeLV virus, there have been some cases of conversion to a test-negative status (regressive infection), but we are continuing to learn about this disease.  This should be discussed with your veterinarian.

The moral of Gonzo’s story:  Test ALL YOUR CATS WHO ARE AT RISK FOR THESE VIRUSES ONCE A YEAR if they have access to the outside, or if new untested housemates arrive, or if they escape from home even for a day.  One negative test does not mean your cat is negative.

Addendum:  Gonzo passed away at Christmas in 2015, after a very long happy life with Dr. Daniels, from complications arising from his battle with Chronic Kidney Disease.  Thanks to the outstanding veterinarians at the University of Florida who helped with his case in his final years of life.  He was an amazing, amazing cat–let others rescue a pet like this and reap the rewards of their companionship.   –Tracie A. Daniels, DVM