Herpes is the informal term for a human disease caused by a herpesvirus. Cats have their own unique herpesvirus that they can be infected by, they’re pretty common and very contagious. However, they cause different symptoms compared to human herpesviruses…

Cat flu

Feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1) is otherwise known as feline rhinotracheitis virus. It’s a common cause of upper respiratory signs in cats. Alongside other different types of virus and bacteria, FHV-1 is a key player in the complex we often refer to as cat flu. Cat flu is a highly contagious disease. It is found frequently in cats living in high density environments where it can be efficiently passed from one to the next. It results in problems like sneezing, nasal discharge, ocular discharge, conjunctivitis and ocular ulcerations, rhinitis, reluctance to eat and generally being ‘off-colour’. 

How can a cat get herpesvirus?

The reason herpesvirus is so contagious is because it’s passed very easily from an infected cat to non-infected ones. This can occur through direct contact between the animals, and also through indirect contact; where a non-infected cat becomes infected because it has come into contact with things that have been contaminated by the virus. For example, bedding, clothes, water and food bowls and so on. It’s very easy for it to be passed from one cat to another. It’s also possible for kittens that are born to a queen that has been infected previously by FHV-1, to be infected very young. 

What happens when a cat has FHV-1?

Normally, a few days after being infected with the virus, the cat will start to show signs of being unwell. For example, sneezing, being more tired than usual, having some nasal discharge. They are the typical signs of cat flu. At this time, the cat can also be shedding the virus meaning that it can easily infect other cats too. Unfortunately, even when cats recover from the acute infection, they can’t completely get rid of the virus from the body, it goes into hiding and becomes dormant, or inactive. Later on, it can be reactivated (for example, by stress) and cause the cat not only to have the signs of cat flu, but also allow it to be contagious to other cats once again. It can be diagnosed specifically by taking samples from the back of the throat, but it’s often not necessary. 

Can FHV-1 be treated?

There is no specific cure or treatment for feline rhinotracheitis virus. Although affected cats generally benefit from supportive care with pain-killers, strong-smelling tasty food, treatment for any conjunctivitis or corneal ulceration, antibiotics, and keeping the eyes and nose clean. Humidifying the air or nebulisation can help some cats more any thick discharge in the nose, helping them to not only breathe easier. But also to smell better, which often improves their appetite. Some cats are really quite unwell and need to be admitted to the veterinary clinic for aggressive rehydration and care. Those which have infections that become reactivated frequently can sometimes benefit from specific antiviral medication.

How can herpesvirus in cats be prevented?

FHV-1 is a very common disease. It’s almost impossible to prevent completely but it does occur less often in cats that are regularly vaccinated, well cared for and not in contact with a lot of other cats. Although it doesn’t stop them from contracting the virus, vaccination against FHV-1 almost always makes the disease much less severe. This allows the cat to recover sooner. We vaccinate against FHV-1 in both kittens and adult cats. Regular boosters are important because the immunity provided by vaccination doesn’t last a long time. This means that a cat is once again very susceptible to the illness if the immunity wanes because of missed booster vaccination.