By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 10 February 2011)
Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR), a feline herpesvirus (FHV), is a common cause of upper respiratory infection or cat flu. If your cat shows symptoms of FVR, consult a veterinarian.
Symptoms of FVR/Feline Herpes
Symptoms of feline herpes may include:
- Appetite loss
- Congestion/difficulty breathing/open mouth breathing
- Eye discharge/red eyes/eye ulcers
- Runny nose/sneezing (particularly in response to movement or excitement)
Symptoms tend to be more severe in cats that live under stressful conditions or have weakened immune systems, young kittens, elderly cats, and flat-faced breeds such as Persians. For otherwise healthy cats that are not exceptionally young or old, the virus usually isn’t life threatening.
How Cats Catch the Feline Herpes Virus
The feline herpes virus is most commonly spread via eye, nose, or mouth discharge. Cats that share food and water dishes, litter boxes, toys, and bedding; touch noses; or engage in mutual grooming with an infected cat can catch the virus. If a pregnant cat is infected, she can pass the virus on to her kittens in utero, which may trigger miscarriage. In addition, humans may spread the disease from cat to cat by handling an infected cat and then another without washing their hands in between.
The majority of cats that are infected with the herpes virus carry it for life. After the initial illness (which typically lasts 7-10 days in adult cats, much like a human cold or flu), it often remains dormant, causing no symptoms, or only mild symptoms when the cat is under stress. Once the symptoms of the initial illness have cleared up, the cat may remain contagious for several weeks.
Some infected cats have no symptoms at all, but they can infect other cats with the virus when they are shedding it. This usually happens in response to trauma or stressors such as surgery, boarding at a cattery, moving house, loud noise, houseguests, or the introduction of a new pet. Under stress, a cat with a dormant virus may become contagious again for a couple of weeks or so.
Many owners are concerned about transmission of the herpes virus from cats to people and other pets in the household, but there is no need to worry. Humans, dogs, and other animals can’t catch the infection from cats, and cats can’t catch the human version of herpes.
Treatment of Feline Herpes/Cat Flu
Because herpes is a viral illness that stays with most infected cats indefinitely, veterinarians can only prescribe medications and therapies to treat the symptoms and secondary infections that often accompany the virus. Some cats just require rest until their flu-like symptoms have abated, whereas others become more seriously ill and require more significant interventions. Kittens, in particular, are inclined to suffer longer and more dangerous illnesses.
Depending on the symptoms, antihistamines and topical medications for the eyes and nose (creams or drops) may be prescribed. Treatments for secondary infections may include oral antivirals and antibiotic medications. In extreme cases, intravenous fluids, oxygen tent therapy, and supportive feeding may be required.
Additional treatments to make the cat more comfortable at home may include cleaning his eyes and nose regularly, running a humidifier to ease congestion, and maintaining a warm room temperature. The sick cat should be isolated from other cats in the household to reduce their risk of infection (not only while he is showing symptoms but for a couple of weeks afterward). You can also reduce the risk of transmission to other cats by using bleach to disinfect areas where the sick cat has been and objects he has touched, and washing your hands thoroughly after interacting with him.
With good nutrition and loving care, most cats recover from the initial illness. However, stress may reactivate the virus, so keeping the cat’s environment as stress-free as possible will reduce the risk of symptoms recurring and the cat again becoming contagious to other cats. A veterinarian may prescribe lysine or alpha interferon to manage chronic herpes infections.
Rhinotracheitis Vaccination for Cats
There is a vaccine to prevent feline herpes. It doesn’t provide 100% protection against the virus, but it does significantly reduce the risk of infection (see Cat Vaccinations for a list of vaccines that all cats should get). You can also reduce the risk of transmission by keeping your cat indoors (see Can Indoor Cats Be Happy? for ways to create an enriched indoor environment).
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
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