Sick cat with feline herpesvirus

Feline herpesvirus is a common disease in cats that is not curable. However, it can be managed with proper care and treatment, and cats can live normal lives after contracting the virus. Herpesvirus is something that can be prevented in most cats with the vaccination. However, vaccinations can only occur once the kitten has reached about eight weeks of age, so kittens can become susceptible to the virus.

This virus, when caught early, can be managed, but it can be fatal if not treated. Feline herpesvirus life expectancy depends on the age your cat is when they contract it, but in many cases, it’s not a fatal disease. This article will discuss what feline herpesvirus is and what you need to know about it.

Definition of feline herpesvirus

What Is Feline Herpesvirus?

Feline herpesvirus (FHV) is a contagious virus that can cause severe upper respiratory problems.1 FHV is most commonly spread by direct contact with infected objects and cats, sharing food and litter boxes, and transmission from mother to kitten. Essentially, FHV causes upper respiratory infections and cat flu in cats of all ages but can be especially harmful to kittens who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

Once a cat is infected, they will remain infected for the entirety of its life, making them a life-long carrier. For most cats, carrying FHV won’t cause problems, and they may not be a risk to others when they’re not shedding the virus. However, some cats will continue to shed the virus intermittently over their lifespans, especially when stressed or when their immune system is weak.

6 Things to Know About Feline Herpesvirus?

Feline herpesvirus is common, but many cats live full, happy lives as carriers. Most cats come into contact with the virus, but the FHV vaccination can prevent them from becoming infected. Here’s what you need to know about feline herpesvirus.

1. Feline herpes is common among cats

Feline herpes is common, and up to 97% of cats are exposed to the virus.2 The most susceptible cats are young cats and those with weakened immune systems. FHV causes a lifelong infection in most exposed cats, and a little more than half of the cats will shed the virus when stressed.

80% of exposed cats will have feline herpesvirus for life

2. Once infected, cats will carry the virus for life

After your cat has become infected with FHV, they will carry the virus for their entire life because the virus lives in the nerve cells.1 Infected cats are essentially life-long carriers, but they typically don’t experience many health problems or pose a risk to other cats. Unfortunately, other cats will shed the virus periodically and develop signs of infection, including eye problems,

After the cat becomes a carrier, they can get flare-ups that will eventually clear up on their own. Many cats will have bouts of upper respiratory problems and eye diseases, such as conjunctivitis in cats.2 Unfortunately, these flare-ups can also lead to death in some cases if the cat has a coexisting health condition.

3. Most cats have an active infection for a few days

Once a cat becomes infected by FHV, they may have an active infection with mild symptoms for 5 to 10 days or more severe infection for up to six weeks.3 Most symptoms occur within two to five days, during which is how long it takes the virus to incubate. During this time, the cat can infect other cats.

As we’ve mentioned, many cats won’t shed the disease again or experience any symptoms. However, some cats, when stressed, might shed FHV periodically throughout their lives. During their shedding period, they are infectious to other cats. If your cat has FHV, they may show signs of respiratory infection when the virus is shedding and active again.

Feline herpesvirus can reactivate in infected cats, especially when they’re stressed

4. Treatments are available

Feline herpesvirus life expectancy varies. Luckily, even though FHV can be fatal, there are treatments available to extend your cat’s lifespan and keep them healthy even though they have contracted the disease. Options available are:

  1. Systemic antiviral therapy
  2. Topical ocular antiviral therapy1

Cats with a mild infection can be treated based on their symptoms. A vet will treat your cat based on the specific clinical signs they’re demonstrating.1 For example, since FHV can affect eye health, your vet might treat your pet for cat eye infection with topical medications. Additionally, cats with conjunctivitis will get antiviral drops and medications.

Your cat might also receive antibiotics to control bacterial infections or treatments to boost their immune system. Additionally, cats with congestion may be required to spend some time in a steamy bathroom to help loosen the mucus in their sinuses.1

5. Feline Herpesvirus can be fatal for kittens

Can cats die from herpesvirus? Yes. However, in most cases, cats can live long lives after contracting feline herpesvirus. Kittens and older cats are at an increased risk of death after contracting herpes virus.3 Unfortunately, kittens born to a cat with herpesvirus will likely become infected. Since their immune systems are still weak after birth, they may not be able to fight off the symptoms, and it could become fatal. Additionally, older cats who haven’t been vaccinated can also be at risk of death due to weak immunity and the presence of any coexisting medical conditions.

6. Some cats are more prone to feline herpesvirus

As we’ve discussed, most cats come into contact with FHV, and all cats can be infected with it. However, the infection is more severe in kittens or those with compromised immune systems. Additionally, in the case of indoor vs. outdoor cats, outdoor cats that don’t have dedicated pet parents may easily succumb to their symptoms because they don’t have treatment options. Also, outdoor cats may come in contact with the virus more frequently than cats who are the only cats in a household.

Feline Herpesvirus Symptoms

Feline herpesvirus causes upper respiratory symptoms and eye problems. Cats with herpes virus can have mild to severe symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Nasal inflammation
  • Runny nose
  • Clear discharge from nose and eyes
  • Loss of appetite 3

These symptoms typically clear in a few days to a few weeks, depending on their severity. Because the upper respiratory symptoms of FHV are similar to allergies, it can be difficult to diagnose based on symptoms alone. For example, if your cat is sneezing, they could be allergic to pollen. Additionally, conjunctivitis in cats can be caused by allergies, so pet parents might not realize their kitten or cat has feline herpesvirus.

What to Do if Your Cat Has Feline Herpesvirus

If you believe your cat has feline herpesvirus or your cat has come into contact with another cat that does, take them to the vet, who can decide the best treatment for your cat. Treatment will depend on the severity of the disease and symptoms.2 In all cases, your vet will ask that you take proper care of your cat during treatment, including nutrition and hydration.

Many vets may not specifically diagnose FHV since the signs of an upper respiratory infection will be clear. However, if your vet wants a specific diagnosis, they might take ocular or oral swabs to detect evidence of feline herpesvirus.

For treatment, your vet may prescribe decongestants to help cats suffering from upper respiratory symptoms.

If your cat is having severe symptoms and for young kittens, vets may also prescribe antiviral medication to treat eye infections and upper respiratory symptoms.2 Recurring eye infections and conjunctivitis are common but can be managed with medication and by limiting stress in the household.

After your cat’s symptoms have cleared up, they will still have the dormant virus in them, so they may have occasional flare-ups. You and your vet can prepare for possible flare-ups by getting the medication you need to help get your cat through their symptoms, which will eventually subside again. Since these flare-ups are typically associated with stress, it’s important to keep your cat calm and ensure they have a stress-free environment.

If you have more than one cat in your household, it’s typically best to isolate them as much as possible, especially if one cat is experiencing flare-ups. It’s also best to get your cats vaccinated as soon as possible to reduce their chances of contracting FHV from other cats.

How to Protect Your Cat From Feline Herpesvirus

The best way to protect your cat from feline herpesvirus is to get the FHV vaccine. The vaccine consists of two or three injections in kittens around eight weeks old.1 Once the kitten has been vaccinated, cats will receive boosters. Depending on your vet, you may have a choice between a one-year or a three-year booster for FHV.

Vaccination doesn’t prevent infection, so your cat can still come into contact with the virus and get infected. However, it does reduce the severity of the disease if your cat does get infected. There is only one strain of FHV, so vaccination has been effective at reducing your cat’s chances of becoming ill due to the virus.

Feline herpesvirus vaccination is recommended for cats of all ages, and many states legally require cats to be vaccinated against FHV and other common cat illnesses.

Owner petting orange cat

Final Notes

Feline herpesvirus is a serious illness that can be fatal to kittens and cats with compromised immune systems. While FHV is very common, and most cats will come into contact with it in their lives, symptoms typically range from mild to severe depending on the cat. The best way to protect your cat from herpesvirus is to get them vaccinated and ensure they get their yearly or every-three-year boosters.

Diagnosing cat herpesvirus is typically easy for vets, and some may be able to diagnose your cat based on their symptoms alone. Treatment can include medication and topicals for eye infections. While some cats will not shed the virus again after contracting it, others will shed it during times of stress, which makes them contagious to other cats. Finding a qualified vet is important for helping you successfully treat and manage your cat’s illness.

Dutch offers telemedicine for pets that can help reduce anxiety about going to the vet. As you already know. Herpesvirus can be triggered by stressful events. By working with one of Dutch’s licensed veterinarians, you can learn how to treat your pet’s illnesses and better care for them at home.

References

  1. Care, International Cat. International Cat Care, 6 Oct. 2019, https://icatcare.org/advice/feline-herpesvirus-fhv-infection/.

  2. “Respiratory Infections.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 30 Sept. 2020, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/respiratory-infections.

  3. Kuehn, Ned F. “Feline Respiratory Disease Complex (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Feline Calicivirus) - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-cats/feline-respiratory-disease-complex-feline-viral-rhinotracheitis,-feline-calicivirus.