Marissa Heffernan, Special to Bear Essential News

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Like most shelters, the Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter and Sanctuary in Tucson provides a home to many types of cats: old, young, tabby and Russian blue.

But unlike many other shelters, the Hermitage also offers a home to cats infected with feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus.

Feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, affects 1.5 to 3 percent of U.S. cats, according to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center’s website. That’s between 1,110,000 and 2,221,000 animals.

FIV spreads from cat to cat, but only though deep bite wounds, not by casual contact such as grooming, licking or sharing food.

Lucky, pictured left, is one FIV-infected cat who lives at the Hermitage. The sweet, inquisitive 3-year-old is under the care of Hermitage veterinarian Jennifer Becker, who understands his disease.

“Similar to HIV in people, it’s a viral infection,” Becker said. “It’s species specific, so it can’t be transmitted to other species at all. Mainly it’s an immunosuppressive disease, so cats are at an increased risk of contracting different types of infections.”

FIV cats typically experience some dental problems as well and sometimes need to have their teeth removed.

“Their body is so reactive to the teeth themselves that it leads to a really painful and uncomfortable situation for them,” Becker said. “They do better if we remove the teeth.”

Feline leukemia virus, or FeLV, also tends to cause dental problems for infected cats. It too is an immunosuppressive disease, affecting 2 to 3 percent of U.S. cats, according to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center. That means the number of infected cats is between 1,480,000 and 2,221,000 animals.

FeLV is spread through biting, food sharing and licking, as well as from mother to kitten. FeLV tends to have a higher mortality rate than FIV, although cats more than 2 years old have some natural immunity.

Reih, a FeLV-positive 7 year old, is not the most outgoing cat but is certainly one of the most loving at Hermitage. Becker cares for Reih just as she cares for Lucky.

“Feline leukemia virus, like it says, is a virus,” Becker said. “It’s not strictly a cancer, like people think of leukemia in a person, although one of the biggest things it can cause are certain types of cancer.”

FeLV can remain in a cat’s bone marrow, completely dormant, until something triggers the virus, such as stress from the introduction of new people, babies or animals to a home; people leaving for vacation or college; loud noises or a move to a new house.

Becker said treatments typically are “maintenance and managing” to keep cats free of other diseases. Good routine healthcare, vaccinations and parasite prevention help keep healthcare costs low.

“If they [cats] don’t get sick, it’s not very expensive to treat,” Becker said. “Day to day, I would say, on average, that they’re the same cost as a normal, healthy cat.”

This means there’s no reason not to adopt an FIV- or FeLV-infected cat, especially with the Lease for Life program the Hermitage offers. The program means the shelter will maintain financial responsibility for any medical costs related to the disease.

Alexis Martinez, adoptions counselor at the Hermitage, said the price is a little higher up front to opt into the program, which has some tight guidelines. FIV and FeLV cats require a vet checkup every six months and blood work every year, but in the end, the program is worth it.“It’s really beneficial,” Martinez said. “We’ll help cover the cost of insulin, special food, medical procedures. There are more benefits than not, especially if you’re a first-time cat owner and don’t know what to expect with vet costs, which can be outrageous.”

Photographs by Marissa Heffernan

For the complete story and more photos of the cats at the Hermitage, visit This story was originally written for Professor Carol Schwalbe's Reporting on Issues of Science and the Environment journalism class at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

April 2017