As far as viruses go, Feline Herpes Virus (FHV-1) is one you really don’t want your cat to catch. A leading cause of feline morbidity and incurable to those that do survive, it is thought that as much as 95% of the global cat population has been exposed to FHV-1. Of this number, it is estimated that 80% remain latent carriers of this highly contagious virus, which is very easily contracted and can be difficult to treat.
How is FHV-1 contracted?
The spread of FHV-1 infection is possible through direct contact with secretions from an infected cat’s eyes, nose and mouth, or through the contamination of objects that have been touched or secreted upon by an infected animal. The latter is the most common mode of transmission, especially in catteries, rescues and multi-cat households where many objects are communal or shared.
Bowls, cages and litter trays can stay contaminated for several hours and the virus can also be contracted from the hands and clothes of a cat owner or handler. Sadly, another mode of transmission is pregnancy, with unborn kittens contracting FHV-1 from their mothers.
Fortunately, Feline Herpes Virus is not a zoonosis and cannot be spread to humans (or dogs). That said, serious zoonotic diseases such as Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted from cats to humans through the faecal contamination of hands, so it is important to always maintain good hygiene practices when around cats.
What are the clinical signs of FHV-1 infection?
While initial symptoms can vary greatly, both in terms of severity and presentation, most infected cats will exhibit flu-like symptoms such as fever, sneezing, ocular and nasal discharge and mouth ulcers. Conjunctivitis is also a common sign, as well as other more serious ocular complaints. Corneal ulcers are both extremely painful and threatening to a cat’s vision. If your cat has any of these symptoms, take it along to the vet for a professional evaluation.
The problem with FHV-1 is that, while initial symptoms will clear up within a matter of days, 80% of cats stay latently infected. This means that the majority of infected felines become a carrier of FHV-1, which can effectively re-activate at any time. The infection is carried in the nerves of the face so the eyes, nose, throat and sinuses are the areas most commonly affected. It is useful to think of this latency period as a temporary remission, from which some cats repeatedly relapse into infection, and others have fewer repeat episodes.
Stress is usually the catalyst for FHV-1 relapse. When a latently infected cat is stressed, the virus is re-activated and then shed in secretions, helping to infect other felines. Your cat’s original flu-like symptoms are also likely to re-appear during these times of stress and active infection. Because of this, it is important to minimise stress as much as possible in cats with known FHV-1. Those with chronic infection are highly susceptible to ocular disease and may need regular treatment for this.
How is Feline Herpes Virus treated?
There is no cure for FHV-1, only management. Unfortunately, once a cat has the virus, it remains infected for the rest of its life. Because there are varying degrees of infection, treatment very much depends on symptoms and severity. There are also a number of things you can do yourself at home, such as clearing away discharges (with warm water and cotton wool) and minimising stress for fewer outbreaks.
You should also ensure your cat is kept hydrated throughout the day and that its appetite is maintained. If your cat refuses to eat and drink, IV or subcutaneous fluids may need to be given. Good nutrition is key if the body is to have a fighting chance of overcoming initial infection.
In terms of professional care, your vet will probably prescribe anti-viral drugs, as well as antibiotics if there is a secondary respiratory infection. These can help ease symptoms, but do not alleviate the infection from the body. Medicated eye drops and lotions can be used to treat conjunctivitus and other ocular conditions.
Lastly, it is important to keep infected cats isolated from other cats in the house. In multi-cat households, the virus is quickly spread between animals, so ensure isolation during active infection. Also make sure that bowls and litter trays remain separate to avoid transmission of FHV-1.
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