Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

CAT CONUNDRUM

FELINE IMMUNODEFICIENCY VIRUS IN CATS TAKES A SURPRISING JUMP

Last month, the folks at Banfield Pet Hospital, who care for more than 2.7 million pets nationwide, including 470,000 cats, released their 2014 State of Pet Health report. It included a startling statistic: a 48 percent increase in the prevalence of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection in cats seen at Banfield's more than 850 hospitals.

Does it mean your cat is at risk? Not necessarily. A lot depends on his lifestyle.

Cats can get FIV through contact with saliva from an infected cat. Cats with the disease typically acquire it through bite wounds when they get in fights with FIV-infected cats. That's a really good reason to keep your cat indoors.

We don't know what's behind the increased incidence in FIV infection. It's not explained by changes in the rates of testing or of vaccination.

What is known from the report is that male cats are three times as likely to be infected with FIV as female cats, and that adult, unneutered cats were 3.5 times more likely to be infected with FIV as adult cats who were spayed or neutered. That makes sense, because unneutered tomcats are the ones who are going to be out there fighting and biting.

Interestingly, a recent study found no evidence that FIV-positive cats living peacefully with disease-free cats passed on the disease. In the same study, FIV-positive mothers did not pass on the disease to their kittens. So while the possibility of transmission is there, simple exposure to an infected cat may not be as risky as previously thought -- as long as the cats are friendly toward each other.

There are a couple of important things to know about FIV. First, while FIV is contagious among cats, it's not transmissible to humans.

Second, it's not a death sentence. It's not curable, but with good care, cats with FIV infections can live long, healthy lives.

FIV affects the immune system, so cats with the disease can be more prone to respiratory, dental, eye or skin infections. Cats with FIV may develop a fever or seem tired all the time. Chronic diarrhea and weight loss are also associated with FIV. Some cats don't show any signs, although they are still infectious.

Protect an FIV-infected cat from injuries or wounds that could cause secondary bacterial infections as well as from other viruses and parasites that could cause illness. Depending on your cat's lifestyle, environment and clinical signs, your veterinarian may recommend other measures as well to manage the disease.

The most important safety measure you can take is to keep your cat indoors -- both to prevent exposure to potential injuries and infections and to make sure he doesn't spread the disease to other cats.

A vaccination is available for FIV, but it is not among the core vaccines recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. That's because it doesn't protect against all the strains of FIV and because the FIV test cannot distinguish between the actual disease and the antibodies produced by vaccination. That can make test results unclear if a cat's vaccination history is unknown.

The AAFP recommends the vaccine only for cats who are at high risk of infection -- in other words, cats who go outdoors. Those cats should have a microchip indicating that they've had the vaccination to prevent any confusion about their infection status.

Your veterinarian may suggest testing your cat for FIV if she has a fever, frequent infections or other signs of illness. A simple and accurate blood test gives rapid results. Kittens born to FIV-infected mothers may test positive while they are young, but negative after they are 6 months old, so it can be a good idea to retest them after that age.

Q&A

How to teach kids

good dog care habits

Q: We have a dog, and we want to teach our kids to learn to love and care for him as much as we do. What are some good ways we can do that? -- via Facebook

A: Sounds like you are already off to a good start. We think no one should get a dog for the kids unless they truly would love having a dog themselves. Helping children to build a strong and loving relationship with the family dog reinforces that he's really a member of the family. Here are some good ways to do that:

-- Have your child help you with pet care tasks. Depending on your child's age, this can include things like refilling the water bowl, washing the food bowl, giving the dog his monthly flea-control or heartworm pill, or stuffing a Kong toy for him. That helps to reinforce the importance of regular pet care.

-- Take your child to training class with the dog. It's important for everyone to learn how to train correctly. And when you go to class, you can get help from the trainer right away if you're having problems.

-- Make sure you all practice what you learn in training class at home during the week. Call it "dog homework."

-- Teach your children to respect the dog's space. They should leave him alone when he's in his crate, on his bed or eating a meal.

-- Let your child help you walk the dog, first with each of you holding a leash attached to the dog's collar and then under supervision. When your child is old enough and has learned what to do in case, say, a stray dog approaches, you'll have a built-in dog walker as well as a budding dog lover. -- Mikkel Becker

THE BUZZ

Pilot program lets

pets ride the rails

-- It's a pet peeve of many train travelers: Amtrak doesn't allow their four-footed friends on board, with the exception of service dogs. But a six-month program in Illinois is testing the idea, on the Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains between Chicago and Quincy. Riders with pets (dogs or cats up to 20 pounds) must reserve seats in advance and pay a pet fee of $25. As on airplanes, they must ride in carriers that fit beneath the seat. Reservations are available through Nov. 2.

"Amtrak is supportive of accommodating pets on trains, and through direct collaboration with the Illinois Department of Transportation and a working group led by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California, we are optimistic a plan can be reached to accommodate the needs and concerns of all our passengers," says Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman.

-- Say cheese! Admit it. You take more pictures of your pet than of your spouse, don't you? Research last year by British pet insurance company Direct Line found that a whopping 90 percent of dog owners take more pictures of their pets than their partners, with 31 percent taking pictures of pets daily. The photos end up as screen savers (86 percent) and on social media profiles (45 percent). Because, let's face it -- pets are just cuter than spouses.

-- A pair of friends were reunited after a two-year separation. When U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Bos injured his back and had to retire from the military in 2012, his bomb-sniffing dog, Cici, had to remain on duty in Germany. Bos was elated when the kennel master contacted him recently and asked if he'd like to adopt the soon-to-retire dog. The American Humane Association and Mission K-9 Rescue helped pay the expense of flying Cici from Germany to Michigan. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.