Feline Herpes: Is it as scary as it sounds? Dr Claire Stevens
Is your cat showing signs of poor health, with runny eyes and nose, constantly sneezing, together with a poor appetite and general lack of energy? Chances are it may have feline herpes, a common cause of ‘cat flu’ symptoms.
What exactly is feline herpes?
Feline herpes, or feline rhinotracheitis (rhinitis), is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract that affects the nose, throat and eyes of infected cats. This infectious disease, also known as feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1) and feline viral rhinopheumonitis (FVR), can be spread between both domestic and wild cats, typically as a result of sharing food/water bowls and litter boxes, as well as from licking each other during mutual grooming activities.
While the disease may be contracted by cats of all ages, kittens are particularly vulnerable, as are pregnant females and cats with already weakened immune systems due to poor health, or even healthy cats dealing with a stressful environment. Cats and kittens adopted from an animal shelter are typically at greater risk of exposure to the virus, as are cats that wander the neighbourhood where they can potentially come into contact with an infected stray.
Symptoms of feline herpes.
While some infected cats show no signs of ill health, they can still be carriers of the disease, spreading it to other cats with weaker immune systems. Cats infected with the feline herpes virus typically show signs of a head cold, which is why they are often said to have cat flu, and may exhibit any of the following symptoms:
- Watery nasal discharge that may contain pus
- Sudden bouts of uncontrollable sneezing
- Puffy and/or watery eyes — caused by inflamed conjunctiva (conjunctivitis) and/or cornea (keratitis) that can be painful, cause the eyes to water, and impair vision
- Partially closed eyes due to spasm in the muscle of the eyelid
- Discharge from the eyes
- Loss of sense of smell
- Loss of appetite
- Spontaneous abortion (miscarriage)
My cat has feline herpes! Now what?
If your vet diagnoses feline herpes as the culprit, you may initially recoil at the thought, wondering what the health risks are to you, your family and other pets in your household. But there really is no need to panic. Feline herpes is a common disease in cats, and you will be pleased to know that while it can be passed on to other cats, it cannot be passed on to other animals or humans. With treatment, most cats will recover within two weeks, however, if left untreated can lead to secondary infections and, in severe cases, even death.
It is important to note that in most cases infected cats never actually get rid of the feline herpes virus, and can remain carriers of the disease. Veterinary treatment focuses on treating and relieving the symptoms of the disease, as well as any secondary bacterial infections that may arise. In minor cases a vet will prescribe medication to treat the symptoms, for example, eye ointment to soothe the eyes and/or nasal drops to help relieve respiratory congestion and clear the airways. In more severe cases, where symptoms persist or recur, a course of antiviral medications and perhaps antibiotics may be necessary to overcome any secondary infections.
While your kitty is recovering from the infection, ensure that it is kept isolated from other cats and that the environment is stress-free. It is also essential that your pet receives good nutrition, for example Hypro Premium’s Adult Ocean Fish diet for cats and remains hydrated. If your cat shows no interest in food or water over several days, it is vitally important that you contact your vet.
Tips to help an infected cat feel better
- Clean your cat’s eyes frequently to remove any discharge that could otherwise accumulate and form a hard crusty gunk that can add to your pet’s discomfort
- Placing a humidifier in the room where your furry friend is recouping can help relieve congestion.
- Alternatively, placing your cat in a steamy bathroom for short intervals will also help clear the air passages.
- Ensure that your cat is eating regular meals and is drinking sufficient water to keep him hydrated.
- Maintain a calm, restful environment that will aid the rehabilitation process.
How to prevent flare-ups?
Stress is an important trigger that stimulates flare-ups. To reduce the likelihood of the virus flaring up, try to make your pet’s environment as stress-free as possible, limiting noise, visits by strangers, or any sudden changes to your pet’s daily routine. It stands to reason that now would not be a good time to introduce a new pet to your household, particularly another cat. Keep your cat calm and comfortable by providing a clean, cosy bed in a quiet corner of the house that he can retreat to and recoup, as well as a sunny area where he can warm himself in the sun’s rays.
If a newly introduced cat is showing symptoms of feline herpes, it would be advisable to keep it separate from other cats in your household. Ensure that all litter trays and food/water bowls are cleaned regularly. It is also advisable to clean your pet’s nose and eyes regularly to prevent the nasal passages becoming blocked, which could lead to a loss in appetite.
With persistence and patience, feline herpes can be overcome, and with the proper treatment and care your pet will soon be its furry-purry self once again. But, as is commonly the case, prevention is better than cure. The best method of preventing the disease is to vaccinate your cat against it. One of the key vaccinations given to weaned kittens includes a vaccine against feline herpes, and immunity can be extended by administering an annual booster vaccination. While vaccinated cats may still contract the virus, they typically have better immunity and therefore their symptoms are likely to be milder than that of an infected cat that has not been vaccinated.