Overview

Severity: Low - Medium
Life Stage: All
  • Over 80 percent of cats are affected by the herpesvirus.
  • The virus can lay dormant, with symptoms showing during times of stress.
  • Symptoms of herpes in cats may include upper respiratory problems such as sneezing and watery eyes.
  • Many cats recover from symptoms without treatment. However, severe cases may require medications.
  • The FVRCP vaccine for cats can help prevent feline herpes.

Over 80 percent of cats have feline herpes, a virus that hides within the body and can cause symptoms at any time. It can cause a myriad of issues, from a common cold to painful inflammation in the mouth. 

How do you know if your cat has herpes? And how is it prevented or treated? Read below to understand this complex condition.

What is Feline Herpes?

Feline herpes is caused by feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1), also known scientifically as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR). This virus infects cats and uses the cat’s own cells to make more of the virus. Because of this, herpesvirus is very challenging—if not impossible—to treat.

Once herpesvirus has infected a cat, most cats will be infected with the virus for a lifetime, including inside cells of the nervous system (in nerves). During times of stress, cats will develop symptoms again and again.

Is Feline Herpes Contagious?

Feline herpes is contagious. The virus spreads through respiratory fluids such as saliva and discharge (boogers) from the nose or eyes, including when a cat sneezes. 

Herpes can spread through direct contact (when cats interact with each other) or indirectly. The most common cause of indirect contact is people—when a person pets a sick cat, then pets a healthy cat. Indirect spread also occurs when objects are contaminated with the virus. If a sick cat eats out of a food bowl, and then a healthy cat eats out of the same food bowl, the healthy cat could get herpesvirus.

Feline herpes is very specific to cats. Cats cannot give it to humans, to dogs, or to any other species of animal. 

Feline Herpes Symptoms

Cat not feeling well

The symptoms of feline herpes vary widely, and each cat will experience herpesvirus differently. Whether your cat has herpes for the first time, or the virus is causing illness after a stressful event, most symptoms are those of an upper respiratory infection (URI).

Symptoms of URI related to feline herpes include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion (stuffiness, so that you can hear your cat breathing)
  • Runny eyes or nose (can be watery or yellow-green discharge)
  • Mild decrease in activity or appetite

Herpes in cats can also cause some more uncommon conditions. 

If your cat has any of the symptoms below, talk to your veterinarian right away:

Keratitis, or inflammation of the front (clear part) of the eye.

  • Redness or puffiness of the eye
  • Holding the eye closed some or all of the time
  • Aversion to bright light (looks away or quickly closes the eye)
  • Cloudiness to the eye

Dermatitis, or a skin condition, usually of the face.

  • Redness of the skin, possibly raw appearance
  • Fur loss
  • Itchiness (rubbing the face frequently)
  • Crusts or “scabs” on the face/neck

Stomatitis, or painful inflammation of the mouth.

  • Halitosis, or bad smelling breath
  • Decreased appetite, or becoming picky
  • Avoiding dry food or hard treats
  • Pawing at the mouth especially after eating or chewing
  • Chewing primarily on one side of the mouth
  • Unkempt fur coat from not grooming well
  • Very small amount of blood on food or water bowls or hard toys

Causes of Cat Herpes

When cats are young (less than 2 years old), their immune systems are not fully mature yet. This means they are more likely to get infections such as feline herpes. 

Cats are more likely to contract feline herpes when they are:

  • Kitten age (less than 1 year old)
  • Unvaccinated
  • Born to an unvaccinated queen (mom cat)
  • Living in stressful conditions, such as crowding with many other cats
  • Lacking in quality care, such as high quality diet and enrichment

Realistically, the vast majority of cats are exposed to the virus when they are very young and many will carry it for the rest of their lives. 

If a cat develops symptoms of herpesvirus, it usually occurs following a stressful event. This could include a move, a visit to the veterinary clinic, guests staying over, a change in the home, or when you are on vacation. Symptoms of the virus can occur at different stressful times throughout a cat’s life.

Diagnosing Your Cat with Feline Herpes

Veterinarian checking cat for herpes

Feline herpes can be diagnosed by using special testing that is sent to a laboratory. Most of the time, the test used is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This PCR test detects the presence of the genetic material (DNA) of the virus even in small amounts. 

However, even healthy cats can have herpesvirus show up on this test, so PCR tests are not a reliable diagnosis on their own. 

Because testing is challenging to interpret, most of the time veterinarians will rely on clinical symptoms and knowledge of a stressful event to diagnose a likely herpes infection. If a veterinarian notes the common symptoms of herpes, such as sneezing and watery eyes, herpes is high on the list of possibilities.

With uncommon conditions such as stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth) or dermatitis (skin changes), a biopsy is required to diagnose the cause as herpes. A biopsy is when a very small piece of tissue is surgically removed and sent to the laboratory for further testing. 

Herpes Treatment for Cats

For most cats with herpes, time is usually all that is needed. Keeping your cat’s stress levels low will help her get rid of the symptoms associated with the virus. Allowing your cat to stick to her usual routine, allowing your kitty to hide somewhere secluded when guests come over, and offering quality cat foods to tempt her appetite will help. 

The virus will typically subside in about 7 to 10 days, especially if the stressful event is over and your cat is at home resting comfortably. If your cat isn’t eating as well or is much less active, though, a veterinary visit is required to make sure she is hydrated and getting enough calories each day.

Medication for Feline Herpes

When cats are not very active, are very congested, or have a lot of yellow-green discharge from the eyes or nose, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics. This will eliminate any secondary bacterial infections. Antibiotics will also often shorten the course of disease. 

Depending on your cat’s symptoms, your veterinarian may prescribe either antibiotics by mouth or into the eye. The best choice of antibiotics by mouth for an upper respiratory infection include doxycycline and azithromycin. Some choices of antibiotics in the eyes include erythromycin, Terramycin, tobramycin, or ofloxacin.

While antibiotics may help shorten the length of time your kitty is feeling ill, they will not treat the virus itself. A very common antiviral medication taken by mouth in cats to kill herpesvirus is called famciclovir. It has limited side effects and is most often used when cats have one of the more uncommon conditions, such as keratitis, stomatitis or dermatitis. It may also be used when cats have chronic (ongoing) symptoms related to herpes such as chronic congestion or eye infection.

General Cost to Treat Cat Herpes

If your cat is not feeling well overall, your veterinarian will examine your cat and determine if additional treatments are needed, such as fluids for dehydration, anti-nausea medications to stimulate appetite, or antibiotics. These treatments can cost $100-$200, depending on how ill your cat is and where you live.

If your cat has one of the more uncommon conditions, testing and treatments may cost much more. For example, treating keratitis (the eye condition) may cost $500. Treating stomatitis (the mouth condition) may cost more like $2,000 as it involves advanced dental surgery, testing, and many medications.

How to Prevent Feline Herpes

Veterinarian vaccinating a cat

In many cases, feline herpes can be prevented. The most important prevention method is vaccination with the FVRCP vaccine, also known as  the distemper vaccine for cats. The FVR portion of the vaccine stands for feline herpes. The vaccine decreases the chance of infection, but also decreases symptoms of herpes that may occur when your cat is chronically (life-long) infected with herpes. 

Even when your cat is an adult, keeping her up-to-date on this vaccination is beneficial. The vaccine should be given yearly to start followed by every 3 years. It is given either as an injection under the skin or as droplets into the nose.

The next best thing you can do to prevent feline herpes is decrease stress in your cat’s life. While this is not always possible, all pet parents should try to do the following for their cats:

  • Feed a high-quality diet
  • Keep a consistent routine
  • Provide safe places for your cat to hide 
  • Supply a variety of toys that changes at least weekly
  • Offer various forms of enrichment (entertainment) such as cat videos or ways of stimulating the senses like cat grass or catnip
  • Introduce new people and pets slowly and carefully  

Related Conditions 

  • Upper respiratory infection (URI)
  • Keratitis
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Dermatitis
  • Stomatitis
  • Calicivirus

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