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a little wheezy: feline herpes virus in cats

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Dr. Kim Smyth
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jun 13 2012
Group of kittens | feline herpes virus in cats

Despite my excitement over the numerous kittens and puppies born every summer, I am always a little bit wary of the diseases that come through the door with them. For puppies, it’s parvovirus, whereas kittens are more prone to respiratory infection. Often, feline herpes virus is to blame for kitten illness.

Feline herpes virus in cats

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.

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. Kittens can easily succumb to these, especially if they were in poor conditions from the start.

Diagnosis and treatment

Diagnosis of herpes conjunctivitis in kittens is generally based on clinical signs, though the presence of a particular kind of corneal ulcer can make for a definitive diagnosis.

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.

You may have heard of herpes being “the gift that keeps on giving.” The same applies to our feline friends – 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. In these cases, usually only one eye is affected (and it is generally the same eye each time), and clinical signs are much less severe than those seen with initial infection.

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

Kittens are delicate, despite their often rough and tumble attitudes, 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. Don’t worry – you and your two-legged family members can’t be infected, but you’ll want to start treatment for your kitties right away. Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect your cats may be affected.