Feline Herpes – Symptoms and Treatments

If you have noticed your cat having the same symptoms as human colds such as sneezing and nose discharge, it might not be the same after all. It could be the common virus that is highly contagious in cats called the feline herpesvirus (FHV) – also known as Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR). It is caused by the feline herpesvirus type-1.

It is a very common disease and an estimated 80% – 90% of cats are affected by it. Not only domestic cats, but felid cats such as leopards and cheetahs have been reported to contract the same illness.

All cats are susceptible to FHV-1 but most especially at high risk are pregnant cats, kittens, and senior cats that have low immune system. 

Feline breed of cat

These include cats which already have pre-existing diseases. It is transmitted from one cat to another and is not transferable to humans.

Clinical Symptoms

Feline Herpes is one of the major causes of eye and upper respiratory disease in cats. The herpes virus enters thru the nasal, mouth, or through the eyes. Cats which caught the virus while pregnant can pass it to its kittens or even worse, can lead to an abortion. It is important to be familiar with the symptoms associated with cat herpes to avoid possible worsening of a health situation.

The signs vary from one cat to another. Some infected cats do not show the symptoms explicitly but can act as carriers of the virus. Here are some signs that a cat may have feline herpes:

  • Sneezing attacks
  • Eye and nose discharge (that may be accompanied by pus or water)
  • Nose congestion
  • Eye ulcers
  • Loss of smell that leads to loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Conjunctivitis or the inflammation of the white part of the eye
  • Fever
  • Excess salivation
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing
  • Squinting or red eyes
  • Scarring around the eye area

You may notice that it targets the eye because the virus is connected with a number of eye diseases such as keratitis (corneal inflammation), symblepharon (sticking of the eyelid to the eyeball), or feline corneal sequestration (discoloration of the cornea) to name a few. The development of these symptoms depends on the severity of the virus in cats.

The disease with mild complications can last from 7 to 10 days unless treated immediately.

Causes and How FHV-1 is Transmitted

As mentioned, it is caused by the virus feline herpesvirus type-1 which is a family of the herpes virus found in humans. The trademark of this type of virus is that it becomes dormant after the initial infection.

If this happens, cats become lifetime carriers of the virus and may shed it from time to time. The awakening of the virus may be caused by stress or weakening of the immune system.

Transmission of herpes virus in cats may either be thru direct or indirect contact. Direct contact includes in utero or while a cat is pregnant, by air thru coughing or sneezing, exchange of secretions, and the shedding of the virus from latent, infected cats.

Indirect contact, on the other hand, may be thru food bowls or litter boxes that are being shared by two felines where one is already infected. It can also be transmitted from the handling and clothing of pet owners.

This type of illness is common in multi-cat households or animal shelters that are overcrowded. If there is poor ventilation, nutrition, and sanitation, then the cats are at a higher risk of getting the disease.

Cute little feline kitten

Treatment and Management of the Cat Herpes

Viral infection has no conclusive treatment so the main goal is to give supportive care, manage the symptoms, and stop the virus from replicating. Most cats usually have a good prognosis or are predicted to overcome the cat herpes symptoms, but a different story occurs in kittens and senior cats.

When a cat recovers from the feline viral rhinotracheitis, it is estimated that 80% of them become a carrier of the virus.

If you observe any respiratory signs from your cat, it is best to go to your veterinarian immediately for diagnosis. This disease is quite challenging for veterinarians and you may have to provide a history of your cat’s health, including how and when the signs occurred. A combination of symptoms and laboratory tests will be done to rule out other illnesses.

What to expect during the diagnosis? A routine physical examination will be done along with blood tests and urinalysis. There are methods to confirm if it really is FVR and your veterinarian may take a sample of the eye discharge by swabbing, especially for chronic cases. Some would also use X-ray to see if there are any complications in a cat’s nasal cavity.

Treatment for feline herpesvirus are done according to the symptoms that they exhibit. Eye infections such as conjunctivitis and keratitis can be treated using topical medications. Drugs such as idoxuridine, trifluridine, and cidofovir are eye drops typically used together with the topical eye medication.

Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, famciclovir or ganciclovir can also be prescribed to chronic patients. Prescribing antibiotics will treat the secondary infections to prevent further damage to the affected eyes and nose. If not prevented, it may cause blindness or loss of smell in cats.

Most cats afflicted with feline herpes get dehydrated due to loss of appetite. It is essential that they are given proper nutrition or the veterinarian will suggest that an intravenous fluid should be administered to support your cat’s body system.

Some vets may also advise that you give L-lysine, a nutraceutical amino acid, for your cats to suppress the virus. This has been largely popular among veterinarians to help combat the recurrence of the feline herpes virus for years.

But in recent studies, there has been no consistent pattern of effective results while some even made the infection worse. You may want to ask your vet for an alternative supplement.

Home care is important to shorten the duration of FHV symptoms. First and foremost, give all the medications to your cat as prescribed by the veterinarian. Ensure that proper nutrition is given to your cats during this time as it is critical in boosting their immune system.

An appetite stimulant may be needed especially for cats which have an upper respiratory tract infection because their sense of smell is weak.

For cats which have congested nasal passages, a humidifier or vaporizer in the room will ease their breathing. If you don’t have one, you can turn on the hot shower in your bathroom until steamy, then you may leave your cat inside for 10 – 15 minutes. Also observe their breathing pattern once in a while to make sure they are breathing normally.

For eye infections, make sure that you help them remove the crusting around their eyes by using a gauze dipped in a warm salt solution.

How to Prevent Feline Herpes?

The herpes virus vaccine is not used to completely eliminate the probability but is instead used to increase the immune system of the feline. The initial vaccine is usually given around 8 weeks of age and boosters are needed at intervals to lower the risk of infection. Ask your local veterinarian about vaccinations so your cat is updated.

If you have other cats inside the house, isolate the affected cat from the others to prevent transmission. A good habit of washing your hands before petting your other cats will also help reduce an outbreak at home. Set aside a different bowl and litter box, even brushes, for your sick cat as well.

The recuperating stage is critical for your cat’s health. It needs a quiet place where it can rest securely, away from outside noises or even other pets. Reduce the stress levels of your cat as much as you can since this can aggravate the illness and increase the risk of shedding.

House sanitation is important to deactivate the virus. The virus is susceptible to commercial disinfectants and detergents, so house disinfection is a must. The virus is also deactivated at a temperature of 37oC so you may also want to keep your cats warm.

This is a lifetime condition for your cats but this shouldn’t freak you out as it can be controlled by proper managing of symptoms and preventive care. After all, this is when your cats need you the most. 

The condition won’t affect your cat’s lifetime. Also, humans aren’t contagious to herpes in cats and vice versa. As long as you have a good communication with your best ally – the local vet; there is no need to stress out.

Kathy Hills
Kathy Hills

I have been an animal lover since I was a small child. My mother sold Watkins products in a small town in North Dakota and when delivering the product to people who lived on farms I would get out of the car first to distract the dog (most farms had at least one dog) for my mother (she was afraid of dogs) as she went to the door. I was her "dog decoy." I have worked with animals my entire adult life, mainly as a VET.

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