Understanding Feline Herpes Virus
Feline herpes virus is considered the most common cause of feline upper respiratory infections. It is better known as the “common cold” in cats. Feline herpes virus is caused by the FHV-1 virus which is contracted from direct cat to cat contact. Although all cats are at risk, cats which are pregnant, have a low immune system, and kittens under 5 weeks old are most at risk for serious complications.
Symptoms of Active Feline Herpes Virus
Some cats can become infected with the herpesvirus and never present any outward signs or symptoms, but simply remain carriers all of their lives. These cats will not transmit the virus to other cats while they are asymptomatic. Other cats will continually shed the virus and present outward symptoms, and are contagious to other cats while shedding the virus. Symptoms which can be associated with the virus include any or all of the following:
- Sudden, uncontrollable attacks of sneezing
- Watery or pus containing nasal discharge
- Loss of sense of smell
- Spasm of the eyelid muscle resulting in closure of the eye
- Eye discharge
- Inflammation of the conjunctiva of the eye (conjunctivitis)
- Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea causing watery painful eyes and blurred vision.)
- Lack of appetite
- General malaise
- Loss of pregnancy
Cause/ Infection Rates
This infection is very common and found in most all multi-cat households, catteries and animal shelters. Prevalence rates have been cited to be as high as 78-92% in pure-bred cats obtained from a cattery. The infection is most commonly spread from nursing mothers to kittens. Therefore, even when the utmost caution and infection control measures are taken, infection to newborn kittens is nearly inevitable.
To put the commonality of the risk of infection into perspective, one might consider the human comparison, the rhinotracheitis virus which causes the common cold in humans. It is very widely known and accepted that most everyone has contracted the common cold at one point in their lives. It would be impractical to think that a child, might be raised from 0 to 18 years old (the time of leaving the household), and never had been exposed and contracted the common cold. This exposure comes from parents, siblings, classmates ect. The same rate of infection and exposure is as true and to be expected in the cat breeding community, as well as any cat in a shelter or rescue setting. Typically the only cats which have a chance of being spared feline herpes infection are those who are born to feral mother cats living in a very rural setting widely detached from any feral cat colony.
Treatment of Feline Herpes Virus
For mild symptoms such as sneezing, and watery eyes no treatment may be necessary. However, a visit to your veterinarian is always recommended to help determine if it is in fact a feline herpes virus infection or another cause. Also your veterinarian will determine if your cat needs treatment with an antibiotic for a secondary bacterial infection. It is important to note that antibiotics do not treat the herpes virus, as antibiotic will only work on bacteria not viruses. Although there are antiviral treatments available for use for the herpes virus infection of the eyes, there is no systemic treatment available for cats. There are no actual treatments to rid your cat of the herpes virus; once infected they are infected for life.
Carrier vs. Shedder
It is important to understand the difference between a cat who is a carrier and a cat who is a shedder of the virus. While all cats which have been exposed to the virus will carry it and have it for the rest of their lives, some cats simply never present symptoms; these cats are called carriers. The virus will lay dominant in the nerve blocks in the body for years without becoming active.
Cats who are shedders also carry the virus and from time to time have outward symptoms of an active infection. When these cats are “shedding the virus,” they are contagious to other cats. However, in consideration of the fact that most all cats, especially cats from shelters, rescues, and catteries, have been previously exposed to the virus, it is not necessary to separate the cats, unless the unaffected cat is a very young kitten, or very elderly cat.
Prevention/ Decrease Severity
Although there is most times no effective way to prevent the spread of the herpes virus; because kittens are exposed directly from the mother cat, there are ways to reduce the risk of severe outbreaks. The first line of defense is taking precaution to ensure that the cat is living in a sanitary, temperate, low-stress home and being fed a nourishing, species-appropriate raw or canned food diet. This is because the immune system plays a huge part in the modulation of viruses in the body. The virus will lay dormant in the body until the immune system is weakened by stress via the environment or through poor nutrition. When the immune system is weakened, the virus lying dormant in the body is allowed to become active again.
The diet is also a huge contributing factor to the outbreak and spread of the virus because 85% of the immune system resides in the GI tract. A healthy, well-functioning GI tract is of utmost importance to a cats overall health and immunity. It is critical that a cat eats a species appropriate diet which consists of at least 95% protein in the form of canned or raw food only. Cats are not meant to eat carbohydrates from grains and starch, so a dry food/kibble diet is not appropriate for cats and will lead to an unhealthy weight, unhealthy GI, weakened immune system and a slew of other health issues.
The next tool of prevention comes in the form of an anti-viral supplement known as L-lysine. L-lysine is an amino acid which is found naturally in various kinds of meat, beans, cheese and eggs. L-lysine has long been known in the world of human medicine to be very effective against cold sores caused by herpes simplex I. It has also become more widely known in recent years that L-lysine is also very effective for the use of controlling the herpes virus in cats.
L-lysine can be purchased in specially formulated veterinary formulations for feline palatability, or it can be purchased in plain powder or capsule form for human use which has no taste and most cats will take to it perfectly well mixed into their meals. The human version is perfectly safe for acts as it is the same amino acid, just ensure the formulation you purchase has no other added ingredients. It is recommended to use 500 mg daily during any times of stress for your cat. Times of stress to your cat can include, a new animal arriving into the household, house visitors, moving, or traveling. It is recommended to give for a span of 7 days before, during, and after the stressful event to help prevent the outbreak of the illness in your cats.
If your cat does become sick and it is determined to be from the herpes virus, it is recommended to treat with 1,000 mg of L-lysine daily until 3 days after the symptoms have subsided. If your cat has been sick for more than 5-7 days, or if it is unknown that they have recurrent herpes outbreaks, a visit to your veterinarian right away is recommended.
Vaccination for the herpes virus is included in what is considered to be the “core vaccines” for all cats. However, it is often misunderstood that vaccination is prevention and it is in fact not the case. The vaccine is designed to administer a modified live version of the virus which will trigger the cat’s immune system to produce antibodies to the virus. This in turn, gives the cat added protection against the virus should they have an active outbreak or acquire infection in the future. Remember, that most all kittens already have contracted the virus in uterine, so even by the recommended age of vaccination at 7-8 weeks, the vaccine is not able to work as prevention, but simply an infection modulator.
How to make your cat feel better during an outbreak
If your cat has an outbreak, the first thing you should do is bring them into your veterinarian right away for an exam to be sure that there is not another cause of illness or a secondary bacterial infection. If your veterinarian determines your cat’s illness is caused by a herpes virus flare-up, there are several things that you can do to help your cat to feel better.
- Utmost importance is hydration. Your veterinarian may give your cat fluids under the skin (sub-cutaneous.). If this is not done by your vet you can help to ensure that your cat is getting plenty of fluids by giving daily fresh water or providing a water fountain. Also,, you can consider adding some chicken broth, tuna broth, or water to your cats food and be sure to feed your cat only a wet food diet at least during times of illness.
- Clean your cat’s eyes frequently to remove discharge and prevent it from causing hard, uncomfortable crust in their eyes. Be sure to use only sterile saline to clean their eyes.
- Be sure to keep your cat as calm and resting as possible.
- Give 1,000 mg of L-lysine daily until 3 days after symptoms are gone.
- Use a humidifier or put your cat in a steamy bathroom to help break up congestion.
Follow these steps to practice good immunity for your cat, good prevention, vaccination, and treatment to help keep your cat healthy despite feline herpes virus infection. With proper management, this very common feline virus does not have to impact your beloved cat’s health or happiness.
Please note: This article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible. A raw food diet may not be appropriate for all cats in all stages of health and we always recommend having your cat examined and discussing diet changes with your veterinarian.
Keep those Hairless Kitties Healthy and Happy Everyone!!!
Text: Copyright © April Arguin RDH, Founder of LiLNudists Sphynx & Bambino Cattery. All rights reserved.