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Feline Herpesvirus

If your cat develops signs of an upper respiratory infection, it could easily be caused by feline herpesvirus. Although highly contagious among felines, it is species to specific, which means you don't need to worry about catching it.

Photograph: iStock

Text: Tarek Abu Sham

There are some crucial steps you can take to help them recover and prevent its spread.

What is Feline Herpesvirus?

Feline herpesvirus is more correctly referred to as feline herpesvirus type-1, and it can cause a disease process known as feline viral rhinotracheitis. This virus is easily spread between cats because it can be transmitted through droplets, from nasal secretions to saliva. If you have multiple cats and one is shedding the virus, your other kitties can get it from sharing food or water containers, litter boxes, bedding, and even you!

Typical upper respiratory illness symptoms include:

  • Sneezing

  • Watery eyes

  • Lethargy and depression

  • Lack of appetite

Affected cats may also be affected by conjunctivitis or inflammation of the tissues around their eyes. In some cats, this may lead to ulcers on the surface of the cornea, scarring, and even dry eye, or keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS).

Secondary bacterial infections can develop in cats with feline herpesvirus, which may worsen upper respiratory signs, thick mucoid discharge, and even lower respiratory signs, such as pneumonia, although that is less common. While this virus only affects cats, some bacterial infections that can take root in infected kitties may be contagious (or zoonotic) to humans.

Most cats will recover uneventfully, but the virus may lie dormant in their system. Stressors, such as new family members or moving, can trigger them to have another active infection.

Treatment of Feline Herpesvirus

If your cat is diagnosed with feline herpesvirus, treatment generally consists of supportive therapies. Cats that are reluctant to eat may be offered different foods or carefully heated canned food to make it more palatable since they often have trouble smelling. Antibiotics may be used to treat or prevent secondary bacterial infections, although they are not effective against the virus.

Because many cats develop eye issues when they are infected with feline herpesvirus, your veterinarian may recommend antibiotic ocular medications to treat corneal ulcers, as well as eye lubricants to help with decreased tear production.

For congested cats, you may find that they benefit well from humidifying therapies. The simplest way to do this is to bring them into the bathroom with the shower running to provide a moist, steamy environment.

"Most cats will recover uneventfully, but the virus may lie dormant in their system. Stressors, such as new family members or moving, can trigger them to have another active infection."

Prevention of Feline Herpesvirus

It is challenging to prevent infection from this widespread disease, especially when many pet owners get cats with unknown histories from rescue situations. The good news is that vaccines are available that can help protect your cats. Depending on where you live and the vaccine manufacturer's label guidelines, the vaccine is generally effective for 1 or 3 years after being appropriately boostered.

New feline additions to the household should be quarantined before being introduced to the family, and sick cats should be separated from other cats. Any materials that may have been exposed should be decontaminated, such as washing bedding in the washing machine with detergents or sanitizing all dishes and litter pans with disinfectants. The virus does not last long in the environment, but moist secretions can harbour the virus.

Feline herpesvirus is a common infection in cats, typically characterized by upper respiratory-type symptoms. Vaccinating your cats can help reduce transmission, as well as symptoms, and your veterinarian can make appropriate suggestions based upon your cat's lifestyle.

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