A few weeks ago I received the following email:
We just had a stray cat euthanized because he had FIV and the vet recommend this because we couldn't bring him in with out cats and we couldn't keep him outside to spread the disease and he would have been hard to adopt out because of the FIV and he was a fighter. He was sweet to us but had been in fights with area cats. I am feeling extreme guilt over this. Did we do the right thing? It seems like we did what was best for us and maybe not the cat. I am devastated and am feeling like a horrible person.
I've had this exact same situation come up a few times in the past. It's never easy to handle, and always a tough decision.
Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is very similar to HIV in humans. In fact, some veterinary researchers on the disease have collaborated with HIV researchers and vice-versa. The virus can lay dormant in a body for years and become active at any time. Once it activates and affects the body it proceeds very similar to AIDS in humans, suppressing the immune system, lowering white blood cell counts, and making the patient much more susceptible to infections. When the virus starts along this path there really isn't anything we can do. We don't have a wide range of antiviral drugs in animals like there are in humans, so essentially a diagnosis of FIV is a ticking time bomb and an eventual death sentence.
Once a diagnosis of FIV is made, the cat may live a few more weeks or several more years. There is no way to predict what their lifespan will be. But we know that they won't live as long as an uninfected cat and will be more prone to health problems. At some point in the cat's life the virus will lead to its death. Unfortunately there is currently no treatment or cure for FIV, so once a cat has it they are infected for life and are at risk of spreading it to other cats.
So what do you do when a cat is diagnosed?
I 100% feel that these cats need to be isolated indoors. If you allow them to continue to roam outside they are most likely spreading the virus to other cats and therefore giving more animals a death sentence. When they are "fighters" as in the email above this is much more likely, and every time it fights with another cat it is probably passing along FIV. If a cat can be kept indoors they can still live a good life until they become seriously ill, and I've known many FIV positive cats who have lived more than five years indoors before succumbing to the disease. So I don't think that a cat with FIV but no symptoms automatically needs to be euthanized.
Some people can't keep the cat inside for various reasons. Maybe they have other cats, and there is certainly a risk of passing FIV to the ones that person already has. Some outdoor cats won't tolerate being kept inside and will be destructive with scratching and spraying. So there are certainly situations where that cat can't be kept in the home.
What do we do then? We can't keep the cat inside, but we can't let it outside to be a vector of infection.
As harsh as it may sound, the best option is often humane euthanasia.
Stop and think about it. Is keeping that cat alive worth having a dozen more cats develop FIV? While it sounds pretty cold and unfeeling I do believe in this situation we have to look at the greater good and the potential for the most harm. It is a bit of an ethical dilemma, but I personally think that gently ending the infected cat's life to prevent infection in 20 other cats is justifiable. It's not easy, but it's the best option in a bad situation.
With a stray cat kept outside a person also not know when that animal becomes sick. A cat with active FIV may slowly die a miserable death somewhere in the woods or under a porch. Do we leave them outside to have this eventually happen, or do we give them a quick, peaceful death before they suffer?
I have euthanized a few FIV positive cats in the exact situation described in the email. I haven't enjoyed it but I also haven't felt guilty about it afterwards. I don't think any pet owner should feel bad about making this choice, even if it's not ideal. In the words of Spock in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."