Feline Herpes Virus 1: If Your Cat Seems to Have a Head Cold, It Could Be This Virus

Feline Herpes Virus 1: If Your Cat Seems to Have a Head Cold, It Could Be This Virus

Story at-a-glance -

  • Feline herpes virus 1, also known as simply FHV-1, is one of two viruses that cause the vast majority of upper respiratory illness in cats.
  • FHV-1 occurs in wild cats and housecats of any age or breed, but it is most often seen in cats living in shelters, catteries, and other multi-cat environments.
  • FHV-1 is spread through eye, nose and oral secretions. A sick cat can infect a healthy one through grooming, hissing, spitting or even snuggling. If the infection doesn't resolve within a few weeks, a cat can harbor the virus for a lifetime, and intermittently shed it during periods of stress.
  • Initial symptoms of an infection include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, and pink eye, and sometimes fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. Other more serious symptoms have been known to occur as the disease progresses.
  • Treatment for FHV-1 is supportive in nature and can include fluid replacement, appetite stimulants, homeopathics and nutraceuticals to support the immune system.

By Dr. Becker

Feline herpes virus 1, also known as FHV-1, is one of two viruses that cause 80 to 90 percent of upper respiratory disease in cats.

The other is calicivirus.

Feline Upper Respiratory Disease Complex is a blanket term for conditions that involve a cat's or kitten's nose, mouth, sinuses, upper airway and sometimes the eyes.

Other causes of respiratory symptoms in kitties include bordetella, chlamydia, pasteurella and feline reovirus.

Often one or more of these infectious agents is present secondary to a rhinotracheitis infection.

FHV-1 occurs in both domestic and wild cats of all ages and breeds.

However, it is most commonly seen in kittens and adult cats living in shelters, rescues, catteries or multi-cat households.

Cats that have not received core vaccines ('kitten shots'), very young and elderly cats, pregnant females and cats who are sick with other diseases are at the highest risk for the virus.

How Cats Contract Feline Herpes Virus 1

Unfortunately, feline upper respiratory illness is highly infective and easily spread from cat to cat through an exchange of nose, eye and mouth secretions.

If an infected cat grooms a housemate, for example, or there's some hissing and spitting between them, the sick kitty can quickly infect the healthy one.

Infectious secretions can also be transmitted via food bowls, toys and even human hands, but this is a much less common mode of contamination unless there's an outbreak of FHV-1 in a shelter or cattery.

Shedding of the virus begins 24 hours after a kitty is infected and can continue for up to three weeks. Also, a cat that has been infected can continue to harbor the virus in her body and intermittently shed it through nasal, oral or eye secretions during periods of stress.

Pregnant females can also transmit the virus to their kittens.

Symptoms of FHV-1

Typically the first signs noticed when a cat has contracted FHV-1 are coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, and pink eye (conjunctivitis that is not contagious to people). There can also be fever, lethargy and loss of appetite.

As long as there are no complications, symptoms usually disappear by themselves in about a week. But if a secondary infection sets in, initial symptoms can continue for weeks and can also result in sinusitis and lung congestion.

Other symptoms of FHV-1 can include corneal ulcers, keratitis (inflammation of the cornea), and decreased tear production or the reverse (excessive tearing).

The infection can also cause ulcers on the face and in the mouth and nose, depression, and abortion in expectant cats, usually around the sixth week of pregnancy.

In kitties with chronic nasal or sinus disease, it's possible an early FHV-1 infection has permanently damaged the tissues of the nose or sinuses, predisposing these cats to chronic infection.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Feline upper respiratory viruses, including FHV-1, are usually diagnosed using a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.

It's important to know which virus is present, because symptoms of FHV-1 are also present in more serious diseases like asthma, certain fungal infections and heart disease.

FHV-1 should run its course in a matter of weeks. But while he's feeling ill, your cat may lose his appetite because he can't smell his food.

Nasal congestion and inflammation of mucus membranes and sinuses can prevent your kitty from picking up the aroma of his food, which will remove his incentive to eat. Anorexia in a cat can quickly result in a very dangerous condition known as feline hepatic lipidosis, so loss of appetite isn't a symptom you want to treat lightly.

If your pet isn't eating, try warming the food to bring out the aroma. Sometimes that's all it takes to interest a kitty in eating again. If he continues to refuse to eat, you should make an appointment with your vet within a day or two because it's crucially important that cats take in adequate calories each day.

Supportive care is the usual treatment for cats with feline herpes virus 1. This includes fluids, appetite stimulants if necessary, homeopathics and nutraceuticals to help the immune system battle the virus.

I regularly use homeopathic nosodes, immune-boosting medicinal mushrooms and herbs, including olive leaf, Cat's Claw, Pau D'arco and turmeric, as well as lysine to treat upper respiratory diseases in cats and shorten the duration of these infections.

Kittens that are vaccinated for FHV-1 are not always protected, though the vaccine may decrease the severity of the illness and reduce viral shedding.

Your cat's healthy immune system is what will either prevent an FHV-1 infection in the first place, or defeat it once it occurs. If your pet is exposed to too many vaccines -- whether through yearly re-vaccination or the addition of non-core vaccines -- it will take a toll on her immune system and her body's ability to fight off infections like feline herpes virus 1.

Tips to Keep Your Cat's Immune System Strong

  • Feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet.
  • Minimize stressful events in her life.
  • Less-is-more is the best approach to vaccinating your cat. If she received a full set of kitten shots in her first year of life and she lives indoors, she probably has no need to be re-vaccinated as an adult. Ask your holistic vet to run titers to determine which of the core feline diseases, if any, your cat isn't already immune to. Being a vaccine minimalist will help your kitty's all-important immune system remain balanced and functional for a lifetime.
  • If you add a new cat to your viral-free home, always quarantine your new addition until you know she is disease-free and parasite negative. This will reduce your healthy cats' exposure to possible opportunistic viral infections.

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