What is Feline Herpes?
Just like humans, cats are exposed to the herpes virus. For cats, this is called feline herpes, or FHV-1. Feline herpes is a very common upper respiratory infection in cats and kittens alike.
It is estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of cats to have feline herpes-1, also called feline rhinotracheitis virus.
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.
Although feline herpes has no cure, there are ways for breeders and pet owners to prevent and treat flareups. This includes antibiotic treatment, eye drops, immune system boosting herbs, and stress management.
How Does Feline Herpes Spread?
Like mentioned earlier, cats of all ages and breeds are susceptible to feline herpes. However, cats with weak immune systems develop flareups more often. This is why feline herpes is exacerbated in crowded or stressful conditions like animal shelters or catteries. Similarly, kittens’ new immune systems are weak against feline herpes, causing many kittens to be born with feline herpes, passed down from their mothers.
Just like with human cols, viruses are airborne and can be spread through sneezing, sharing food bowls, grooming tools, etc.
If you suspect that your cat has a virus, and you see any symptoms, isolate the cat from other felines until the symptoms are completely gone. Otherwise, everyone in the colony or home environment will certainly catch a case of it.
But good news: feline herpes is not transferable to humans. However, it’s highly transferable to other cats. Feline herpes spreads through contact with discharge from an infected cat’s eyes, mouth, or nose. This means cats spread this virus by sharing litter boxes, food and water dishes, sleeping areas, and grooming an infected cat. This makes feline herpes especially common in catteries and shelters.
An infected cat shows symptoms within 2-5 days. Once symptoms appear, this virus is active for 10-20 days. To prevent feline herpes from spreading, all handlers should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water followed by hand sanitizer between interacting with cats.
Symptoms of Feline Herpes
Feline herpes symptoms mimic pink eye mixed with the common cold. This means sneezing fits, high fever, and lethargy. The biggest tell-tale sign is conjunctivitis, which produces a runny discharge from the nose and eyes. This leads to eye ulcers and scabs.
Sometimes, feline herpes has no symptoms, especially if it’s just beginning. It’s advisable to check cats frequently to catch it early.
Sometimes cats have chlamydia, not feline herpes. Since chlamydia is treatable with antibiotics, it’s important to make a proper diagnosis. That way, the cat or kitten gets treated promptly and doesn’t have to suffer. It’s best to contact your veterinarian to be sure. Chlamydia and feline herpes have much in common, so some vets find it hard to diagnose.
If you’re unsure of your vet’s diagnosis, it’s fine to consider multiple veterinarian opinions to get the best treatment. The sooner feline herpes is diagnosed, the better.
Diagnosing Feline Herpes
You can’t “SEE” feline herpes. You can only see the symptoms that the herpes virus cause. The most common symptoms are a runny nose and runny eyes, with inflamed conjunctivitis. Even a cat with these symptoms doesn’t automatically diagnose them with FHV-1.
WARNING: A lot of vets will automatically rule any “cold” symptoms as feline herpes without verifying this diagnosis with a culture. This is due to the fact that the herpes virus is very common in cats. This applies to EVERY cat, pedigree or not. However, just because it’s common doesn’t mean that your cat has been infected with the virus. The only way to have a definitive answer is to have the cat’s discharge tested.
The diagnosis of feline herpes depends on your cat’s medical history and symptoms. An especially telling symptom is the presence of corneal scarring caused by infection. Symptoms aren’t always reliable, especially for a cat with an advanced stage of herpes. For this, swabbing is ideal. This is where samples are collected from the discharge from the nose, eyes, and throat. The sample’s virus is identified in a lab and treatment follows. This is called a PCR test.
Even with a PCR test, the results can return as a false negative. It’s very important to have the cat tested when there is discharge present, and NO antibiotics have been administered within the last 30 days. This rule applies to testing for ANY viral properites.
The Taboo Around Herpes
Of course when someone hears the term “herpes” they automatically relate it to the human form of herpes, which is sexually transmitted.
Feline herpes is contracted is much more casual and common environment, from another cat who has the virus. Don’t worry, you can’t catch herpes from your cat!
Feline Herpes Treatments
There is no cure for feline herpes. The goal is to reduce the frequency of flare-ups.
The prognosis for a herpes flare-up is typically very good. Most of the time, the virus will go away on its own, and you can treat the symptoms. Occasionally, vets will prescribe antibiotics to prevent any secondary infections. Your cat shouldn’t be frequented with flare-ups, but stress can and will be the leading cause of it.
To begin treatment, infected cats should be isolated from healthy cats with their own litter box, bedding, and toys. Anything they came into contact with should be disinfected.
To recover from feline herpes, infected cats need time and love. There is no rushing treatment. It’s only a matter of eye care and supporting the immune system.
For eye care, veterinarians will prescribe oral antibiotics (i.e. Terramycin) and eye drops or creams to reduce each cat’s conjunctivitis. It’s important for handlers to frequently clean the infected cat’s eyes.
Blocked nasal passages and weakness caused by feline herpes makes eating difficult for infected cats too. A handler will have to feed cats manually until they get better or offer them canned food that’s more odorous than what they’re used to.
In the meantime, a humidifier in the cat’s environment or time in a steamy bathroom can loosen the cat’s congestion. Another treatment includes Immune-boosting herbs, such as Echinacea, and supplements like Lysine. These oral medications respectively stabilize the immune system and fight the virus’ reproduction cycle, slowing down its development.
It’s best to add Lysine to the infected cat’s food over a few weeks. This ensures the Lysine targets the virus extensively. After a few weeks, the virus should subside. Otherwise, always go to the vet to stay on the safe side.
Anti-Viral Medications for Your Cat
Some cats have weaker immune systems than others. These cats may be affected more severely than the next. Talk to your vet about anti-viral medication for your cat. They can prescribe Famvir (famiclovir) to treat the symptoms of a flare-up. Ironically, this is the same anti-viral prescription that humans are prescribed to prevent the flare-up of genital herpes. BUT DON’T WORRY, you CAN’T get herpes from your cat!
Future Flareups Prevention
Feline herpes stays in the body forever. However, this virus does not have to be active. After recovery, cats can go on to live a happy and normal life. To prevent flareups, consider stress management and vaccination.
Stress is a big aggressor of feline herpes flare-ups. Simply a change in environment, routine, or new creatures in the home boosts cortisol levels, weakening the cat’s immune system.
For breeders, feline herpes pops up, especially around mating season and pregnancy. To keep your cattery calm, consider giving more privacy, more space to roam, toys, and clean bedding for each cat. Keep the same routine as much as possible too.
Another product that many breeders use is Feliway. Feliway sends happy and calming pheromones that make the cat feel more at peace.
The FVRCP vaccine is a very important part of your cat’s well being. It prevents three potentially deadly airborne viruses: rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia.
Rhinotracheitis is triggered by the common feline herpes virus. Symptoms include sneezing, a runny nose and drooling. Your cat’s eyes may become crusted with mucous. and he or she may sleep much more and eat much less than normal. If left untreated this disease causes dehydration, starvation, and eventually, death.
A chat with a veterinarian about your vaccination options is a great way to prevent younger cats from contracting feline herpes. In general, vaccines boost the immune system to fight future flareups immediately. This ensures your cat has a fighting chance against feline herpes, decreasing their recovery time significantly.
This article was written as a means to educate the public about the Feline Herpes Virus, a taboo subject that most people don’t want to talk about in public forums. It doesn’t imply that any cattery or PET OWNER anywhere on the planet has cats that are carriers of the FHV-1 virus. DONT FREAK OUT
It is estimated that 80 to 90% of ALL Cats are estimated to have FHV-1.
The most important factor is that you’re educated on the subject and that you know how to identify the symptoms, how to get a TRUE diagnosis of FHV-1, and how to treat the symptoms to make sure your kitty is safe, healthy and happy.
We all want our furry friends to be as healthy as can be. They certainly have their share of pesky little viruses and problems that arise. It’s best to be educated and learn how to raise healthy cats the best that we can. This way we can extend the expected Lifespan of our Maine Coons.
Sassy Koonz does extensive health testing on all of the males and females used in the breeding program. Read more about how we choose the cats for our breeding program.