Checkers was the sweetest, most loving, laid back cat we’d ever had. When we took him to the vet for a routine, annual well-check, they said he looked healthy. So when they offered to do comprehensive blood work since it had been a while, we declined. After all, he was only six years old, was indoor-only, vaccinated and ate, drank, pottied and played well. I never expected to be back at the animal hospital four weeks later saying goodbye to that sweet boy.

Checkers had been rescued as a kitten by FUR. But FUR later discovered the family that adopted him didn’t take good care of him. When he was rescued again, he had one of the worst cases of anemia caused by fleas we’d ever seen. Without a blood transfusion, he likely would have died.

By the time my family and I adopted him, he was healthy, although almost all of his teeth had been removed due to stomatitis. In our busy household of two human kids and four feline kids, cuddles and playtime abounded, with one catch. Checkers and Bear, one of our other cats, hated each other, so we had to keep them separated, rotating them so one had run of the house for half the day while the other was in a bedroom, and then vice versa.

One day, sitting in the living room when Checkers had run off the house, I noticed that he hadn’t come out to see us at all that day, which was very unusual. Then I realized we hadn’t seen much of him for a few days. My husband went to search for him and found him asleep in the bathroom cabinet. Checkers has always been a lean cat, but as soon as my husband picked Checkers up, he noticed something was wrong. Checkers looked like he had aged 10 years. He was skin and bones and weak. I immediately called the vet and asked for an emergency appointment.

Acute kidney failure. That’s what I was told as I held Checkers in my arms, sobbing. They had no idea what caused it, let alone so quickly. Checkers was inside only and all cleaning supplies and other toxic chemicals were kept out of reach. There was no cure, no treatment. At best, we could give Checkers pain meds, subcutaneous fluids and a steroid and prolong his life for days, maybe a week.

As I looked into his eyes wondering what would be best for him, my heart broke. He was only six! He’d already had such a hard life and was now dying from acute kidney failure. He deserved more. He deserved better. He deserved to live a long life as a spoiled, adored house cat. And I was supposed to be the one to give him that.

I made the difficult decision to let him go — peacefully, painlessly, in my arms. The vet, struggling to make sense of Checkers’ death, asked if she could test his blood for FIV. I agreed. He was positive.

I knew Checkers had been tested as a kitten and was negative. FUR tests all of their cats. So then what happened? Did he contract FIV when his first family let him outside? Did he get into a fight with a community cat who was infected? Did he contract FIV during his blood transfusion? Was his stomatitis a symptom of FIV? How could he look perfectly healthy four weeks prior? How could I not know? How could no one know?

These are all questions I will never know the answer to. But there is one thing I do know: Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) doesn’t have to be a death sentence. While there is no cure, an FIV positive kitty can lead a long, full life with the proper care and treatment. Unfortunately, we didn’t know Checkers was FIV positive until it was too late.

The best thing you can do to prevent your kitty from contracting FIV is to get them spayed or neutered. FIV is generally spread through biting and scratching, and unaltered cats are much more aggressive. Outdoor cats tend to be more at risk (since they encounter more cats who may or may not be altered).

While there are symptoms of FIV, an FIV positive cat can go years, maybe even their whole life, without showing symptoms. If your cat is at risk of being FIV positive and shows any of the following possible symptoms, call your vet immediately:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Poor coat condition
  • Persistent fever
  • Inflammation of the gums and mouth
  • Skin, urinary, intestinal, or upper respiratory tract infections
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Seizures, behavior changes, and other neurological disorders
  • A variety of eye conditions

If diagnosed with FIV, a cat can live a good life – even co-existing with FIV-negative cats – with a little extra TLC. By managing their stress, providing good nutrition and regular vet visits and monitoring for illness, an FIV-positive cat can live the spoiled, adored life they deserve.

If you’ve had an FIV-positive cat, please share your experience in the comments below.

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