Recognize the signs of herpes in cats and take action to treat it

The herpes virus in cats, or FHV and FHV-1, is a highly contagious virus that is a major cause of respiratory tract infections in cats.

The feline herpes virus (or FHV, Feline Herpes Virus ) is a leading cause of eye disease in cats (conjunctivitis, cornea disease). Herpes is a virus that also causes acute upper respiratory infections in cats, although it has been associated with other diseases as well. This is also one of the most frustrating diseases to manage, both for the cat, its owner and the veterinarian who treats it.

What is the herpes virus in cats

FHV infection is very common: on average it affects more than 90% of cats

One problem is that this virus cannot be cured, but it can remain in “remission”, or latency, where it can periodically activate itself throughout a cat’s life. 

There are indeed some cats that have the virus in them but never show any signs of the disease.

Active FHV disease is usually associated with stressful situations and / or problems with the immune system.

Stressful situations include travel, surgery, illness, or any change in the cat’s usual environment. Immunosuppression can result from steroid administration.

The virus can be easily transmitted between cats, through various methods:

  • Direct contact with saliva, eye or nasal secretions.
  • Inhalation of sneezing droplets
  • Bowls and litter boxes that are shared, or even with food
  • A contaminated environment (including bedding and grooming accessories). This is less important though, as the virus is fragile and usually only survives a couple of days at most in the environment.

With feline herpes, after infection, all cats will practically remain latently infected, because the virus persists in nerve cells.

In practice, this means that infected cats become carriers of the virus for their entire life. Solidly though this doesn’t cause any problems, and they don’t continue to spread the virus.

However, some cats may still shed the virus intermittently, especially with stressful episodes or a suppressed immune system.

Clinical signs of herpes infection in cats

There are various types of clinical signs of feline herpes virus, and they can range from mild to severe.

Mild forms of the disease often resolve over time, while severe ones can lead to chronic infections or worse disease.

The most common clinical signs are:

  • Half closed eyes
  • Red and swollen conjunctival tissue around the eyes and eyelids
  • Ocular secretions
  • Nasal discharge and sneezing (upper respiratory signs)
  • Corneal ulcers (can be developed by some cats).

Among these signs, we have an acute upper respiratory infection , which is the most common manifestation of this type of disease.

Typical signs of these infections are: conjunctivitis, ocular and nasal secretions, salivation, pharyngitis, sneezing, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. Sometimes, even a cough.

These symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks, and the spread of the virus usually continues for about 20 days.

Keratitis is another relatively rare manifestation of herpes infection in cats, usually along with conjunctivitis.

It is an infection and inflammation of the cornea, the clear part of the front of the eye. The causes can be different, and it causes corneal ulcers.

Finally, dermatitis associated with feline herpes is a rare manifestation of infection with this virus. It consists in the inflammation and ulceration of the cat’s skin.

It usually occurs around the nose and mouth, but can also affect other areas (although more rarely), such as the front legs.

How feline herpes is treated

Depending on the cat and its clinical signs, the vet will prescribe a specific therapy. There is, in fact, no single consistently effective treatment for this virus.

Treatment focuses on reducing or stopping the replication of the virus, and on keeping the cat comfortable at all times.

Typically, topical antiviral drops are used, and occasionally an oral antiviral drug is also used.

However, infections of this type are often complicated by secondary bacterial infections, in which case treatment must be supported with antibiotics.

In the case of multiple cats living together, any cat showing clinical signs attributable to this virus should be isolated.

We must also ensure strict hygiene by disinfecting and using separate bowls, litter boxes, accessories (if not disposable). In addition, we wash our hands thoroughly and often .

Fortunately, cats cannot spread this virus to humans (but it can easily infect other cats).

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