Feline Herpes Virus (fhv)

Many cats do not benefit from veterinary good care in the very early stages of their lives. Some are feral or semi-feral and will not know the careful rearing their counterparts have, that are raised in a home. Some cats can be exposed to viruses when very young and have no defence against them, other than any immunity passed on by their mothers as antibodies, which do not last long. These type of cats that are not vaccinated early, can be affected with several diseases, one of which is called Feline Herpes Virus.

What is Feline Herpes Virus?

Herpes is a very contagious virus, in humans the most common herpes virus is that of cold sores, while in cats the virus causes different symptoms. Although the virus has the same name, herpes is specific to species. This which means that human herpes virus only affects humans and the feline version, cats. There is no crossover, so if you have a cat with feline herpes virus (FHV), you cannot contract it. The disease is found everywhere, in the UK and Worldwide and it can affect any type of cat, regardless of age, breed, or gender. 

How do cats catch FHV?

Because FHV causes many upper respiratory infections (known as URIs) in cats, it can be easily spread from cat to cat by:

  • Direct contact with body fluids - saliva, nasal and eye discharges.
  • By inhaling air droplets in an area of a virus carrier sneezing.
  • By cats sharing bowls, litter trays and toys that are contaminated.
  • Contaminated bedding - although this type of virus does not normally survive for more than 1-2 days outside the body.

After infection cats can seem well, but will still carry the virus (many times termed as the virus being latent).


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What are the symptoms of FHV?

The symptoms of the virus are similar to that of a cold - this is why it is one of the major causes of what is termed cat flu in the feline species.

The main signs that cats with the virus display clinically are:

  • Upper respiratory infection - sneezing, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, discharge from eyes, lethargy and weakness, dribbling, not wanting to eat, high temperature and coughing. These symptoms can last from a couple of days to several weeks. Because of the infectious nature of this virus, the main spread is from the discharges listed about, which become airborne with sneezing and easily spread between animals.
  • Eye problems - including infection that affects the clear part of the cat’s eye (the cornea) with inflammation and possible ulcers. This symptom is fairly uncommon, but if it does present in the cat, the symptoms can be long term.
  • Very rarely a cat will suffer from FHV related dermatitis. The area around the nose and mouth becomes inflamed and sore - even leading to ulceration, on some cases the front legs are also affected. If a cat does shown signs of these rare symptoms, the problem can last for a long term.

How is FHV Diagnosed by a vet?

Under normal circumstances this disease is not specifically diagnosed, but the mere presence of the symptoms described before, as an upper respiratory infection is enough to presume FHV. If the owner wants a definitive diagnosis then the veterinary surgeon can take swabs from either the eye or mouth and send them to a laboratory. The laboratory can either grow a culture of the virus or use other techniques to detect the genetics of the sample. Evidence can also be taken in the form of biopsies, which can confirm the diagnosis - particularly useful if there is a skin infection.

What can be done for cats with FHV?

Even with vaccination for FHV (one of the components of a cat flu vaccination), it does not necessarily prevent the infection, but will massively reduce how severe the disease is - cats should be up to date with their vaccinations regardless! In cases where the cat has been exposed to the virus before vaccination the conditions can only be managed, as it will stay with the cat for the rest of its life. It remain dormant (latent) unless the cat suffers flare ups of the virus. Keeping the flare ups to a minimum and treating the virus when the cat is having a flare up, is the only way of managing the condition.

Medical treatment for managing FHV flare ups include:

  • Antiviral medication - as yet unlicensed human medicines (tablets, creams and ointments), but safe and effective in cats.
  • Antibiotics - to treat the often secondary infection arising from FHV.

Owner treatment for managing FHV:

  • Having a calm environment to minimise stress for the cat (which can cause a flare-up).
  • Strict hygiene - cleaning food/water bowls and litter tray.
  • Keeping the cat’s eyes and nose clear of discharge (and hand washing!)

Conclusion

With the correct care and management cats with FHV can have a good quality of life. The main thing for the owner of a cat with Feline Herpes Virus is understanding the condition fully. They need to know the signs of flare ups, how their cat reacts to flare ups and how the good cleanliness of the cats area can help control the virus. Being responsible with regard to other cats in the area is also a big part of owning a cat with FHV. Many owners opt to keep their animals as indoor cats, in case they meet other cats that are not vaccinated in the outside world.

Of course with pets with a long term condition, the owner must be ready for the long haul and be aware that the cat may need regular medication to treat flare ups, all of which come with a cost in the form of veterinary fees. Speaking to and having a good relationship with your veterinary surgeon, will help the owner of a cat, with FHV.

With good knowledge and assistance from a veterinary surgeon and veterinary staff, owning a cat with FHV can be satisfying!


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