Wait, what? Yup, you read that title correctly: LIVING WITH HERPES. Feline Herpes, that is.
Sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, + congestion … kitty got a cold? Maybe, but if the symptoms are persistent and/or reoccurring – it could be feline herpes, also known as feline viral rhinopneumonitis (FVR), rhinotracheitis virus and/or feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1). Feline herpes is one of the most common causes of upper respiratory infections in cats. And MANY (most???) cats are exposed to this virus at some point in their lives.
The laundry list of symptoms:
- Sneezing “attacks”
- Discharge from the nose and eyes
- Conjunctivitis or pink eye (inflammation of the eyelid)
- Lesions in and around the eyes
- Eye ulcers
- Appetite loss
The worse part? Kitties weakened by the virus may also develop secondary infections.
The herpes virus grows in nose, eyes, sinus, throat, mouth, and tonsils of a cat. This can cause inflammation and fever. Infections in the nasal discharge affect the sense of smell, causing the appetite to fade. Loss of appetite is scary in all cats, it is especially concerning in kittens where anorexia and dehydration can be life-threatening.
How do cats contract herpes?
The most common way for the virus to spread is through contact with discharge from an infected cat’s eyes, mouth or nose. Common activities like sharing litter boxes, food and water dishes with an infected cat can lead to the spread of the virus. An infected pregnant cat might pass the virus on to kittens in utero. Because the virus is highly contagious, it is common in catteries, shelters and multi-cat households.
Some cats who become infected with feline herpes are latent carriers. Even though they will never display symptoms, they can still pass the virus on to other cats. Stress can cause these carriers to “shed” the virus, exhibiting mild symptoms, which clear up on their own after a few days.
So, what does this mean for you?
Aside from giving your herpes kitty some extra attention, good food and the occasional course of anti-biotics … you will:
- use lots of tissues to wipe up her boogers,
- clean your windows way more than a “normal” person will,
- not get freaked out when your cat sneezes a big one on your book, hand, shirt or face,
- you will buy L-lysine in bulk, and
- probably give her a cute nick-name like “sniffer cat”
And now for some of the more technical/medical questions …
Which cats are more susceptible to the herpes virus?
Cats of all sizes, ages, and breeds are susceptible to feline herpes. However, cats in crowded or stressful conditions or with weak immune systems often develop more severe symptoms, as can kittens, Persians, and other flat-face breeds.
Can humans, dogs, or other animals contract herpes from a cat?
No. Humans, dogs, and other animals are not at risk for catching feline herpes. Likewise, cats cannot catch the strains of herpes that humans carry.
How is feline herpes diagnosed?
Diagnosis can be challenging, and is often based on a combination of symptoms, health history and lab tests. If symptoms of feline herpes are noticed/suspected, a veterinarian should be consulted. The same symptoms may point to calcivirus, which causes upper respiratory disease as well.
The veterinarian cant take a blood sample for testing with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. However, the test can be negative even if the cat is infected, so further testing may be needed.
My cat has the feline herpes – what can I do?
Once infected, the majority of cats do not get rid of the virus. However, symptoms can be treated. Veterinarians may prescribe oral antibiotics or antiviral medications to help ease symptoms, and drops or creams may be used for conjunctivitis or other eye irritations. With medication, good nutrition, supplements, and tender loving care, most cats can make a successful recovery.
Conjunctivitis and corneal ulcers are treated with topical antibiotics for secondary bacterial infection. L-lysine has been recommended anecdotally to suppress viral replication.A more recent study supports the use of L-lysine for treatment of ocular signs of FHV-1 infection.
Any cat developing an upper respiratory infection should be under veterinary supervision. A brief exam by a veterinarian will help to determine if your cat requires medication, has a fever,or is dehydrated. If a cat is just sneezing, but is otherwise acting normally, no treatment will likely be needed. However, if a cat begins to show nasal discharge, loss or appetite or other symptoms, there is evidence of a secondary bacterial infection and cause for starting antibiotics.
Please do not administer any medication to your cat unless you’ve discussed it with your veterinarian.
How can I reduce flare-ups?
Reduce stress! The virus reactivates with stress so a low-stress environment is helpful in reducing flare-ups. Your cat can be put under stress by any sudden change in his (or your) daily routine, by a sudden change in environment (new house, new roommate, new kids!) or even loud noises.
How Can I Help My Infected Cat Feel Better?
- Frequently clean his eyes (discharge may dry, creating a hard, uncomfortable crust).
- A humidifier in the cat’s environment or time in a steamy bathroom can help the congestion.
- Create a calm, restful home for your cat.
- Make sure your cat is regularly eating and drinking water. Some cats may require supportive feeding.
Getting rid of the Virus:
Most household disinfectants will inactivate FHV-1. The virus can survive up to 18 hours in a damp environment, but less in a dry environment and only shortly as an aerosol.