If it’s Thursday, it must be Vet 101 Q & A when vet, Dr. Richard Goldstein answers our reader’s questions about cats. Have a question for Dr. G?
Email it to the editor: Layla@laylamorganwilde.com
Question: I’m looking at maybe getting a special needs cat that had the herpes infection. She is partially blind in one eye but didn’t lose the eye. This happened when she was a kitten and she is now around two. Anyway, I don’t know much about this virus. I know they carry it all their lives and can have a flare up. I was wondering can it be transferred to other cats? I know that humans can’t “catch” it from a cat but can a human pass it to another cat? Also wondering if there are any health concerns this could cause down the road like side effects of the infection in old age or anything.
Answer: Feline herpesvirus (FHV) is one of the most common ailments that we see in cats. Typical signs include: sneezing, watery nasal discharge, conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye), keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), loss of appetite, sometimes a fever. Kittens are most commonly affected because their immune systems are not strong enough to fight off the virus. But, it’s important to remember that any cat exposed to herpesvirus is susceptible to catching it.
Although FHV is NOT contagious to people (and human herpesvirus is not transmissible to cats), they can behave in a similar fashion. Once infected with FHV, most cats (over 80%), will remain infected for most, if not all, of their lives. Under times of stress, the virus will resurface and cause symptoms for about 7 to 10 days, then go back into its “latent” (hibernating) state. Some cats can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and rarely have flare-ups. Cats that are having flare-ups (even if they are mild) are considered to be contagious to other cats, as they are actively shedding the virus.
Spread of FHV is usually through contact with “secretions” – eye discharge, nasal discharge, and saliva. Pregnant queens can also pass it along to their fetuses and kittens. So, when considering how a cat would catch it, think about how cats can come in contact with all of those secretions: sharing food bowls, grooming each other, sharing litterboxes, touching noses. But one of the biggest fomites (“things” that can transmit disease to other cats) is us!
If you’re petting a cat that is shedding FHV, and you come in contact with any secretions (like the kitty sneezes on you), and then you pet another cat, you can potentially spread the virus to the other cat. Here’s another example of how “cleanliness is next to catliness.” It’s important for you to wash your hands, and potentially change clothes between caring for an FHV cat and a healthy cat. If you’re in a multi-cat household, care for the sick cat last. If you volunteer at a shelter (good for you!!!), and come in contact with sick cats, wash your hands well and change your clothes before you go into your home.
As of now, there is no cure for FHV. Mild cases may resolve quickly without treatment. But there are lots of treatments available if needed. FHV can cause severe damage and inflammation to the nasal passages, which can then become very dehydrated and uncomfortable. Humidifying the airways with a cool-mist humidifier, or nebulizer, is key to making severely affected cats feel better.
The damage to the nasal passages makes them susceptible to secondary bacterial and fungal infections, which may require antibiotics or antifungal medications. Sometimes antiinflammatories or antihistamines can help. For conjunctivitis, eye medications may be required. Most importantly, cats need their noses to survive! They need to breathe through their noses and need to smell their food in order to eat. Keep the nose and eyes clear with a soft, moist towel. If your cat stops eating, hospitalization may be required. Above all, try to minimize stress in FHV-infected cats, to try and minimize flare-ups. (Getting an inquisitive puppy, or having a noisy holiday party, may not be the best thing for your FHV kitty).
What about vaccination? The FVRCP (3-in-1) vaccine is very effective at preventing feline herpes. It may also have some effectiveness at helping shorten the duration of symptoms if there is a flare-up. Talk to your vet about appropriate vaccine protocols and therapies that are available.