It’s not unusual for concerned cat owners to wonder about the best course of action when they see their cat with watery eyes, runny noses, and uncontrollable sneezing fits. Do you let it run its course? Do you make a beeline to the nearest emergency vet clinic?
Most cat owners are unaware that their kitty was exposed to and infected with Feline viral rhinotracheitis. This infection was caused by and also known as the Feline herpesvirus type- 1 (FHV-1).
As scary as it sounds, FHV-1 is fairly common. Almost all cats are exposed to the virus as kittens and may only present symptoms under stressful situations. However, cat owners should take the time to familiarize themselves with what causes FHV-1, what symptoms to look for, and how the virus is treated.
What is the Feline Herpes Virus?
Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) is one of the major causes of upper respiratory infections, the most common cause of conjunctivitis in cats, and caused by the feline herpesvirus type- 1. While the virus is highly contagious among domestic and wild cats, it cannot infect other animals or humans.
FVR can infect cats of all ages, sizes, and breeds. But, the infection turns more severe in kittens or cats that struggle with other chronic diseases.
Is my cat likely to get infected?
FVR spreads from an infected cat to a healthy one by sharing litter boxes, food/water dishes, grooming each other, playing, or even fighting. The virus is passed through the saliva and discharge from the eyes and nose of an infected cat. If your healthy cat comes into contact with the infected cat or an object (blanket, toy, etc.) that has saliva or leftover discharge remaining, they are likely to get the virus.
If a female cat infected with the FVR infection gives birth to a litter, her kittens may start showing symptoms a few weeks later.
Because Feline Viral Rhinopneumonitis and Feline Herpesvirus Type 1 are highly contagious, cats adopted from shelters, residing in catteries, or living in a multi-cat household are more than likely carriers of the virus.
What symptoms should I be looking for?
Not all symptoms will appear in an infected cat but owners should look for the following:
- Sudden uncontrollable sneezing
- Discharge from the eyes or the nose
- Pink eye or conjunctivitis (swelling of the tissue around the eyes)
- Eye ulcers
- Loss of appetite
- Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea that causes painful, watery eyes and blurred vision)
- Mouth breathing
How long will my cat be sick after getting FVR?
After becoming infected, cat owners might not start seeing symptoms for two to five days. During this time if the cat is not isolated, it can very easily pass on the infection to other cats. Typically, the infection will only last about 10-20 days depending on the severity of the case. Some cat owners have reported the virus lasting for nearly a month.
All cats who have had FVR or FHV-1 are now carriers of the virus. However, just because your cat is a carrier doesn’t mean it needs to be locked away. Most carriers with the virus may never show signs or symptoms of the infection, but the virus will remain in their system in a latent or dormant state.
Cat owners should know that stress can cause a viral reactivation. This will start to “shed” the virus, causing it to become contagious once again.
How do I get a diagnosis?
A cat can get an upper respiratory infection in several different ways, and a diagnostic isn’t always as clear cut as you’d expect. A diagnosis of feline viral rhinotracheitis is based on your cat’s medical history, current symptoms, and the results of a physical exam. Vets particularly look for evidence of a corneal infection by using a dye to identify if any ulcers have developed. The doctor may also collect virus particles from the eye, nose, or throat discharge to determine the specific type of FVR.
Unfortunately, if a cat is not showing any clinical signs of FVR or the virus seems to be in the latent state, diagnostic testing usually does not reveal much.
What treatments are there for FVR?
If your cat starts showing symptoms of FVR, it will take some consistency, diligence, and patience on your part to get your pet back to full health. Infections can take some time to resolve, and there is no cure. However, you can do several things to help your cat feel more comfortable and reduce his or her pain.
The best thing you can do for a newly adopted cat is to keep it away from all other cats, at least for a few days. The virus is highly contagious and can spread quickly in a multi-cat house.
Moisture and humidity
A little bit of humidity can do wonders for clearing nasal passages. The next time you go to take a hot shower, bring your cat in with you to the bathroom. The steam from the shower will open up the nasal passage and make it easier for your cat to breathe. Or you can use a humidifier.
The amino acid L-Lysine is a popular supplement used to support immune function in cats. L-Lysine can slow viral replication and allows a cat’s immune system to respond more effectively to other treatments and can slow the severity and the frequency of flare-ups. Just be sure to talk with your veterinarian about how often and how much L-Lysine to give your cat.
FVR can flare up due to stress (moving, new animals in the home, etc.). Dedicate a quiet, comfortable spot in the home where your cat can get some rest.
If you notice your cat has eye or nasal discharge, keep a package of OptixCare Eye Cleaning Wipes nearby that you can wipe away the extra secretions. This is an essential step as it helps the eyes and nose from being blocked and crusting.
Veterinarians may prescribe topical antibiotic ointments (terramycin, oxytetracycline, erythromycin, etc.) to help with corneal ulcers and conjunctivitis.
FVR and FHV-1 are viruses and do not respond to antibiotics. However, many veterinarians may prescribe an antibiotic if there are signs of a secondary bacterial infection. The secondary bacterial infection could be worsening previous symptoms and can complicate the FVR, especially for kittens.
An upper respiratory infection often means your cat will have a decreased sense of smell. While this may not seem like a deal-breaker, a decrease in their sense of smell can lead to a loss of appetite. One of the benefits of feeding your cat canned food while they have a URI is that canned food has a much higher water content than dry food. This means your kitty will not only be tempted to eat but keep them hydrated much easier.
If you suspect your cat may be developing an upper respiratory infection, please speak with a veterinarian before administering any medication. A short exam can help determine the severity of the infection and the proper course of treatment.
If you’re worried about the cost of taking your pet to the vet, many pet insurance companies include any exam fees in their coverage. PetFirst is an excellent option for pet owners as they can customize their coverage to cover the costs of exam fees and medications.
Can FVR be prevented?
No vaccine will ultimately prevent an FVR infection from happening. Nevertheless, the standard vaccines given to cats usually includes a dose against feline viral rhinotracheitis. The vaccine will reduce the severity of the disease (should catto start showing symptoms) and shorten the amount of time your cat is sick. However, over time the virus may overtake the vaccine, so it’s important to schedule an FVR booster shot. Your veterinarian will provide you with an accurate schedule personalized to the needs of your cat.
Talk to your veterinarian about getting a booster shot a few weeks before leaving your cat overnight or going to a cat show.
Although there is no cure for FHV-1 or FVR, that doesn’t mean your cat can’t live a long, healthy, and happy life. In most cases, kitties respond well to strategic medical management as long as the owner remains attentive. Taking the time to reduce the chance of infection, feeding your cat a healthy, palatable diet (supplementing the diet with L-Lysine on a daily basis), maintaining a calm and comfortable environment, and staying up-to-date on all vaccines will ensure your cat makes it through all its nine lives.
About the Author
Carlee Linden is a Content Management Specialist for BestCompany.com and manages the Online Pet Store and Pet Insurance blogs. When she’s not at work, Carlee can be found online shopping or redecorating her apartment.