Despite the excitement over the numerous kittens born every summer, it also comes with a little bit of worry about the diseases that come through the door with them. Often, feline herpes virus is to blame for kitten illness.

Feline herpes virus 

Herpes is very common in young kittens with naive immune systems, particularly around eight to 12 weeks old, when maternal antibodies (which kittens get from their mothers) begin to wane. It is especially prevalent in kittens who are subjected to other environmental stressors, such as poor nutrition, flea infestations, and bad weather. For this reason, stray kittens are more at risk for herpes infection. Cats and kittens that share close quarters are also more prone.

Signs and symptoms

Herpes in kittens generally shows up as conjunctivitis. Kittens will have copious amounts of eye discharge, which can dry and harden, sealing the eyes shut. Swelling of the conjunctiva (the pink tissue surrounding the globe of the eye) occurs and is sometimes so severe that the globe cannot be seen. Severe herpes conjunctivitis can lead to corneal ulcers and blindness.

Herpes conjunctivitis is often accompanied by respiratory symptoms like nasal discharge, sneezing, and congestion, all of which can rapidly lead to trouble for a young kitten. When breathing and smelling becomes difficult, kittens often lose their appetite, leading to dehydration and malnutrition.

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Diagnosis and treatment

Diagnosis of herpes conjunctivitis in kittens is generally based on clinical signs and exam findings. Your vet may make recommendations for additional diagnostic tests.

Treatment varies, depending on the severity of the disease. Many cases spontaneously recover with supportive therapy, but often topical antibiotics or antivirals are used to combat the virus or secondary bacterial infections.

Lifelong treatment

Clinical signs of viral conjunctivitis can recur throughout an infected cat’s life. Generally, the virus is reactivated after particularly stressful periods, such as boarding or other illness.

Supportive therapy for cats who experience life-long occasional viral reactivation include the use of oral lysine, which inhibits viral replication which seem to shorten the course of the disease.

Kittens are delicate and their illnesses should be addressed at their first signs. Kittens with conjunctivitis and adult cats who come down with conjunctivitis after stressful times may be infected with herpes virus. Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect your cats may be affected.

Jun 13, 2012
Pet Health

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