How to Tell If Your Cat Has Herpes

·5 min read
small kitten with eye irritation
small kitten with eye irritation

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Cat herpes is an extremely contagious disease that causes gunky swollen eyes and lots of sneezing. Like many upper respiratory infections, herpes in cats spreads easily in shelters, boarding kennels, and catteries. While there is no cure, most infected cats can still lead a happy and normal life.

What Is Feline Herpesvirus (FHV)?

Herpes virus in cats is also known as Feline Herpesvirus (FHV) or Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR). Cats of any age can contract it, but kittens, seniors, and cats with chronic illnesses are the most likely to have severe symptoms.

Once a cat has gotten feline herpes, he or she will likely become a carrier for life. The cat will go through an initial period of illness and then the virus will enter a latent, or inactive, period. This can last months to years. If the cat becomes stressed or gets sick with another illness, the virus can reactivate and cause symptoms again.

How Do Cats Get Herpes?

Cats get herpes from the saliva, eye discharge, or nasal discharge of infected cats. Transmission can occur via direct contact with the infected cat or from inhaling sneeze droplets or sharing food bowls. Mama cats can also transmit herpes to their kittens.

After a cat has been exposed to the virus, it will incubate for two to five days before symptoms appear. Illness typically lasts 10 to 20 days, but the cat can spread herpes to other cats both before she starts to show symptoms and up to three weeks after.

Cats experiencing an active infection are contagious and should be kept separate from other cats. Carriers are usually not contagious, but in some cases they may still shed the virus even without showing symptoms.

Is Herpes the Same in Cats and Humans?

Nope! There are several different strains of herpesvirus, and each one targets a specific species. Humans get human herpes, canines get canine herpes, and felines get feline herpes. There is no cross-infection.

A cat with herpes can only transmit the disease to other cats, meaning you, your family members, and your dog are all safe from contracting feline herpes, and vice versa.

Symptoms of Feline Herpesvirus Infections

The active infection with herpes virus typically lasts 10 to 20 days. The symptoms of feline herpes virus look very similar to several other upper respiratory infections, but herpes' calling card is conjunctivitis.

Cat herpes symptoms include:

  • Conjunctivitis (red, swollen tissues around and in the eyes)

  • Discharge from the eyes

  • Squinting

  • Corneal ulcers

  • Sneezing

  • Nasal congestion

  • Nasal discharge

  • Fever

  • Lethargy

  • Poor appetite

  • Enlarged lymph nodes

  • Ulcers on the skin around the mouth and nose (rare)

Cats with chronic herpes infection can sometimes develop keratoconjunctivitis sicca, also known as KCS or dry eye. This condition requires lifelong medication to encourage tear production in the eyes.

Feline herpesvirus is usually diagnosed based on the clinical findings and the history that you provide. Since involvement of the eyes is one of the things that sets herpes apart from other upper respiratory infections, your veterinarian may do a Schirmer tear test to evaluate your cat's tear production and check for dry eye or do a fluorescein stain to check the corneas for ulcers. Your veterinarian can also take swabs from your cat's eyes and throat and send them out for PCR testing to identify any viral DNA.

How Is Feline Herpes Treated?

There is no cure, so cat herpes treatment is focused on alleviating symptoms and limiting flare-ups.

Your cat will likely be prescribed topical eye drops and ointments to soothe the eyes and treat any ulcers that may be present. Ulcers can rupture the eyeball if left untreated, so it is very important to follow the instructions for these medications.

Antiviral medications can help to curb viral replication and assist your cat's immune system, and antibiotics may be used to treat any secondary infections present.

Your cat will also need basic nursing care, such as keeping his eyes and nose free of debris and warming up his food so he can smell it through his stuffed-up nose. A nebulizer or hanging out in a steamy bathroom can soothe the airways and make breathing easier.

Some cats may need to be hospitalized for fluid therapy and other treatments depending on the severity of the illness.

The amino acid l-lysine can be helpful to lessen symptoms during flare-ups and reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. This can be given long-term, but check with your vet to see if this is something you should pursue for your cat.

How To Prevent Herpes in Cats

Vaccination

The best way to protect your cat from feline herpes is to get her vaccinated! The R in your cat's RCP or FVRCP vaccine stands for rhinotracheitis, the other name for feline herpes. Vaccinating your cat doesn't provide complete protection from this disease, but even if your cat does still get herpes she will have much milder symptoms than an unvaccinated cat.

Kittens should get a series of two to three RCP vaccines starting at about eight weeks of age, with a booster at one year old and the repeated boosters every one to three years.

Keep other vaccinations that your veterinarian recommends up to date as well. Any illness can trigger a flare-up of herpes.

Isolate Sick Cats

Because herpes is highly contagious, a cat that is showing symptoms of herpes should be separated from other cats. Wash your hands thoroughly, apply hand sanitizer after handling the infected cat, and clean contaminated items with a diluted bleach solution (washables can be washed in hot water with detergent).

Cats can shed the virus for up to three weeks after first starting to show symptoms, so maintain isolation protocols for a full 21 days even if your cat appears to be back to normal sooner than that.

A cat with herpes can be around other cats when the virus is latent and he is not contagious.

Keep Cats Indoors

Another easy way to prevent your cat from getting herpes is to keep him indoors. Cats who wander the neighborhood are much more likely to encounter sick cats or unvaccinated carriers. If your cat has been diagnosed with herpes, he should be kept inside to prevent him from spreading it to other cats.