Community cats and FIV/FeLV: To test or not to test?

August 15, 2017

Should animal shelters operating Return to Field and TNR programs test cats in those programs for FIV and FeLV?  The American Association of Feline Practitioners says no, and so does Tanya Hilgendorf, executive director of the Humane Society of the Huron Valley in Michigan. Here’s why.

Recently a volunteer TNR trapper told me she has all of her cats tested. She said that at one site there were two positive FIV cats and three positive FeLV cats. They were not sick, but were snap tested and then immediately put down.

The test and the euthanasia together cost more than the sterilization. She later learned that one of the cats was likely an indoor/outdoor cat belonging to a neighbor.

A few months before that, I learned of a healthy TNR cat who sat in a cage at another shelter, in a constant state of fear, for a month because she tested positive for FIV and no one knew what to do with her. They didn’t want to euthanize but were uncomfortable placing her.

A while before that, a shelter was planning to euthanize a litter of FIV positive kittens found outside. After we advised them not to because of the risk of false positives, they adopted them all out and later learned through re-testing that none actually had FIV.

So, why is “to test or not test” the question that never seems to die?

1. We in the animal welfare industry once learned (or still learn) that these are uniformly terrible diseases and cats that have them must be euthanized for their own sake and that of other cats at risk of infection.

2. Veterinarians tend to be trained only in terms of animal health and disease prevention of pets, rather than overall animal welfare. While the perspectives overlap, there is a difference. Some mistakenly believe that testing and euthanizing positive cats will help eradicate the disease. A segment may also see the value of cat (and dog) in relation to their ownership status rather than their intrinsic value, making euthanasia an easier solution when the cat has no owner.

3. Some private practices have come to see these tests as a normal part of their revenue stream, and they may be encouraged regardless of the usefulness of the information.

4. Many in our field are still unaware of the challenges in verifying a truly positive infection.

Because testing gets emotional and blurry fast, it is important to set a clear policy and stand by it firmly. Here, we don’t test and we don’t allow testing. If an individual colony manager demands it, we make them sign a waiver stating they will take the cat back regardless of the results.

We tell folks…

  • We don’t test, because the information is irrelevant to our purpose. Our primary purpose in sterilization is to reduce population, which secondarily prevents nuisance behaviors, disease spread, sickness and needless euthanasia.
  • We don’t test, because a great way to stop the spread of disease is by doing exactly what we are doing — stopping the mating, procreating, fighting and malnutrition that comes with the hardscrabble life of being an intact outdoor animalWe don’t test because FIV has largely become a non-issue. Although there are health risks, recent studies now show FIV does not shorten a cat’s lifespan compared to non-FIV cats.
  • We don’t test because nearly every FeLV cat I’ve met is a sweetheart and is no less deserving of life, even if likely shortened, than any other cat.
  • We don’t test because testing is expensive, time consuming and perhaps most importantly, complicated– a death sentence based on unreliable information. Kittens and FIV vaccinated cats may test positive falsely. FeLV confirmation takes multiple and varied tests over time. Few of us have the time, space and money to test community cats properly, and few community cats would find extended holding time for testing tolerable.

Testing and then killing healthy, thriving cats we think are positive for FIV or FeLV infection does not help individual cats, or cats overall.

Use testing as a diagnostic tool for sick cats; save euthanasia for the irrevocably suffering. Remind those hand-wringers that we all die of something sooner or later. Resist more expense, headache, and heartache that you definitely don’t you need by putting routine FIV/FeLV testing of community cats to rest once and for all.

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  1. Too expensive to keep retesting mild positive kittens. Did this last year with 7 feral bottle babies. 3 ended up negsyive at test number 3. 4 are still positive. They have nit ibfected any other csts in our rescue home. Tbey are as sweet as can be and just turned 1 year old. Seems nobody wants to adopt them. Sad, cause they are such loving kitties. Have spent a fortune on vet bills for this group.

    Comment by Dorothea Boughdadly — August 17, 2017 @ 1:33 am

  2. LOVE this article! We do ( or don’t) this for years- NOT testing feral, only if they are sickly. We also ONLY test FelV for our rescues-I am happy to see that this FIV testing is highly! over rated!! Still Felt is important to test since its so contagious.

    Comment by Katrin Hecker — August 26, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

  3. What a beautifully written and insightful article. Well done and our sentiments EXACTLY

    Comment by Christi Metropole — February 1, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

  4. I always test if I am going to try to socialize. But if you have the funds it is good to test for Feline Leukemia which is very contagious. It is not fair to the other feral cats for there to be a positive cat in the colony.

    Comment by judi Germaine — February 9, 2018 @ 9:10 pm

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