Feline herpes virus (FHV, FHV-1) is one of the most common causes of acute upper respiratory tract infections (Snuffles) in cats. The virus is highly contagious and is easily transmitted between cats. This occurs through direct contact with saliva, eye and nasal secretions. Inhalation of sneeze droplets and sharing of food bowls or litter trays also plays a role.
Feline herpes virus: fast facts
• The virus is very fragile and cannot survive for more than 1-2 days in the environment. It is easily killed by most disinfectants.
• FHV is species specific and is only known to cause infections in domestic and wild cats.
• It affects cats of all ages.
• Cats infected with FVH become lifelong carriers as the virus persists in the nerve cells. If cats are subjected to episodes of stress or their immune system becomes compromised, they will intermittently shed virus and show mild clinical signs.
• Kittens can be affected at birth if the queen has a latent FHV infection. The infection is also more severe in young animals or animals with another chronic disease.
Feline herpes virus symptoms
Symptoms appear about 2- 5 days after infection.
- Acute upper respiratory tract infection signs are the most common. This includes conjunctivitis, discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, salivation, lethargy, inappetence and fever. The clinical signs may last from a few days to a few weeks.
- Keratitis, or inflammation of the cornea. This usually occurs in long-term infections and can progress to form multiple small ulcers on the cornea.
- FHV associated is a rare manifestation of chronic FHV infection leading to inflammation and ulceration of the skin around the nose and mouth.
Diagnosis is usually based on clinical signs. Swabs of the eyes or mouth can be sent to the laboratory to do a PCR test where genetic material of the virus is detected.
Chlamydia and Feline Calici virus can cause similar symptoms.
Treatment is usually supportive. As secondary bacterial infections can occur, antibiotics might be needed. Good nursing care is vital. Cats are often dehydrated because they stop eating and drinking and intravenous fluids will be given. A cat with a clogged-up nose cannot smell their food and will not eat well. Cleaning of clogged noses and eyes is vital. Feeding through a nasal tube in severe cases or feeding soft heated food will improve food intake. Steam inhalation or nebulisation can also be helpful.
Human systemic antiviral drugs and antiviral eye drops can also be successfully used.
What to do at home
• Any infected cat should be isolated if possible.
• Apply strict hygiene practices by disinfecting food bowls and litter trays.
• Wash hands after handling an infected cat.
• Vaccination will reduce the severity of clinical signs but is not 100% effective to prevent clinical signs.
• Kittens are vaccinated from 8 weeks of age and then 2-3 injections a month apart. Older cats then receive a booster every 1-3 years.
It is important to note that there is no cure for herpes virus and the goal is to reduce the severity and frequency of re-occurrence of the infection. Make sure you feed a good quality diet for optimum nutrition, avoid any stress, and follow a proper vaccination protocol.