BOSTON — When veterinarian Dr. Donald Delinks tells cat owners that their pets have the feline form of AIDS, he often sees needless panic.
"Some people say, 'But my cat licked me and bit me! Does that mean I'm going to get AIDS?" ' Delinks said.
The answer is no--there is no connection between feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, and the virus that causes AIDS in humans, scientists say.
Still, experts say the disease could help provide clues to the human virus.
"The viruses are not so similar that the same vaccine that can be used in cats can also be used in humans," said Dr. Neils C. Pedersen, a physician and veterinarian at the University of California at Davis. "But if the human research shows there is a regimen that can be used in man, it might also work well in cats, and vice versa."
FIV has characteristics similar to the AIDS virus, Pedersen said. But experts say FIV cannot be passed to humans and cats cannot develop human AIDS. Veterinarians are shying away from calling the virus "cat AIDS."
Pedersen is credited with discovering FIV in 1987 by modifying the AIDS test for a chronically ill cat. The cat is the only house pet known to have such a disease.
A woman with a cat shelter saw that other cats in contact with the sick cat also became ill, Pedersen said. The woman, suspecting the cat had AIDS, brought it to Pedersen, who was doing research on the human variety of the disease.
UC Davis is sponsoring the first international FIV conference in September.
FIV is transmitted by bites, and it is also believed that an infected female can pass it to her kittens. There is no proof that cats exchange the virus through sex.
"We find it mainly in male, outdoor, mostly older cats who are always getting into fights," said Dr. Susan Cotter, a professor of medicine and the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Current studies show about 1% of the cat population worldwide has FIV, but that number grows as testing becomes more extensive, Cotter said. Delinks said he discovers about two cases a week at Falmouth Animal Hospital on Cape Cod.
At least one-third of cats who get FIV will die from it, Pedersen said. He added that research has not progressed enough to determine exact fatality rates. "It could be 100%," he said. "We just don't know."
FIV symptoms include lingering infections, diarrhea, high fever, repeated colds and gum and mouth infections.
"Most cat owners are not aware of what it is or what it means. We have to deal with the shock factor involved, and tell them that this is definitely not infectious to humans," Delinks said.