Is Cat Herpes Contagious? How to Protect Your Feline Friends

Feline herpesvirus (FHV-1) is a highly contagious upper respiratory infection that affects cats. It is very common, with studies estimating prevalence between 20-50% of the general cat population (cite 1). The virus targets the eyes, nasal passages, and throat, causing symptoms like conjunctivitis, eye ulcers, sneezing, nasal discharge, fever, and loss of appetite. FHV-1 is lifelong but often cyclical, with flare-ups triggered by stress.

Cite 1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26919892/

Transmission

Feline herpesvirus is highly contagious and spreads easily through nasal and ocular secretions. The main transmission routes are:

  • Nasal secretions – When an infected cat sneezes or coughs, viral particles become aerosolized. Other cats can inhale these particles and become infected.
  • Ocular secretions – Viral particles are shed in an infected cat’s eye discharge. Direct contact with this discharge can transmit the virus to another cat.
  • Mother to kittens – A mother cat can infect her kittens in utero or from viral particles in her milk.
  • Fomites – The virus can survive in the environment on objects like food bowls, litter boxes, and toys. Sharing these items can indirectly transmit the virus between cats.

According to VCA Hospitals, the virus can survive up to 1 month on surfaces at room temperature.

Contagious Period

Cats with feline herpesvirus are most contagious during active viral outbreaks when they are symptomatic. The virus can cause upper respiratory infection symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, and fever. When cats have these symptoms, they readily transmit the virus to other cats through respiratory secretions and saliva.

Cats can also have latent infections where they carry the virus but do not show symptoms. During latency, cats are less contagious but may still shed the virus periodically and infect other cats. Stress, illness, or corticosteroid use can reactivate the latent virus. Kittens with latent infections are likely to experience viral recrudescence as they reach sexual maturity.

a cat with eye discharge due to feline herpesvirus infection

Overall, the contagious period can last for weeks or months during active viral infection. With lifelong latent infection, cats remain contagious to some degree their entire lives. Isolating infected cats and keeping uninfected cats up-to-date on vaccines are important to control viral spread.

Risk Factors

Certain cats are at higher risk of contracting feline herpesvirus than others. The most vulnerable populations include:

  • Kittens – Kittens under 12 weeks old are highly susceptible due to their underdeveloped immune systems. Most cats are exposed to feline herpesvirus as kittens. [1]
  • Shelter cats – Cats in shelters and catteries are at increased risk due to the high density of cats and increased exposure. Shelters often have outbreaks of upper respiratory infections caused by feline herpesvirus. [2]
  • Immunosuppressed cats – Cats with weakened immune systems, such as those co-infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV), are more susceptible to contracting feline herpesvirus. The infection also tends to be more severe in immunocompromised cats. [3]

Prevention

There are several ways to help prevent the spread of feline herpesvirus between cats:

Vaccination is key – kittens should receive a series of vaccinations starting as early as 6 weeks old, with boosters continued throughout their life (Source). While vaccines cannot completely prevent infection, they can reduce viral shedding and the severity of clinical signs if a cat does become infected.

a vet giving a kitten a vaccination

Limiting exposure to infected cats can reduce transmission opportunities. Isolating infected cats during an active flare up and keeping vulnerable kittens separated are effective precautions (Source). Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting shared items can also help.

Reducing stress is important, as stress can trigger recrudescent infections in latently infected cats. Keeping cats in stable, comforting environments and routines can lower stress levels and outbreak risk.

Testing

There are several diagnostic tests available to detect feline herpesvirus (FHV-1) infection:

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests look for the presence of viral DNA in samples from the cat’s conjunctiva or pharynx. This test can identify an active infection but does not differentiate between the presence of a vaccine virus strain or a wild type infection. PCR testing is very sensitive and results can be obtained quickly.

Virus isolation involves trying to grow the virus from conjunctival, pharyngeal, or nasal samples. A positive culture confirms an active infection, but this process can take up to 2 weeks. Virus isolation can also differentiate between the vaccine strain and wild type virus (VCAAnimal Hospitals, 2022).

Serology tests look for antibodies in the blood specific to FHV-1. A positive test indicates exposure or vaccination, but not necessarily active or recent infection. Serology cannot differentiate between antibodies formed after vaccination or natural infection.

Limitations of testing include:

  • PCR detects both vaccine and wild type viral DNA, serology detects antibodies from both vaccine and natural infection
  • Serology cannot determine if an active infection is present
  • Cats can be latent carriers, so may intermittently test negative on PCR
  • Testing errors can occur with improper sample collection and handling

Treatment

There is no cure for feline herpesvirus, so treatment focuses on supportive care and managing symptoms. The main treatments include:

a cat receiving supportive care and treatment for feline herpesvirus

Supportive care – This involves keeping the eyes and nose clean and moist.Veterinarians may prescribe eye drops, facial/nasal ointments, oral rehydration fluids, appetite stimulants, and nebulization therapy.

Antivirals – Antiviral medications like famciclovir or valacyclovir can help reduce viral shedding. They are often prescribed for cats with severe or recurrent symptoms. These medications may be given orally or as eye drops. However, they do not eliminate the virus completely [1].

Lysine supplementation – The amino acid L-lysine may help inhibit virus replication and control flare-ups. It is available as a powder, treat, or gel that can be given daily. However, its effectiveness is variable [2].

Treatment plans will depend on the cat’s age, vaccine status, symptoms, and overall health. Your veterinarian can recommend the best options for supportive care and symptom management.

Prognosis

The prognosis for cats diagnosed with feline herpesvirus (FHV-1) varies greatly depending on the severity of symptoms. According to VCA Hospitals, “The severity of clinical signs is extremely variable among cats. While most cats have mild or no clinical signs, others may have severe clinical signs that are life threatening.”

In mild cases, symptoms may resolve in 1-2 weeks. More severe cases can take 4-6 weeks to resolve and may require intensive nursing care and antiviral treatment. According to Vetspecialty, even with appropriate treatment “Nasal discharge and conjunctivitis will often recur when the cat is stressed.”

The virus generally follows a cyclical pattern, with periods of latency interspersed with periods of recurrence when the cat is stressed or immunocompromised. While rare, FHV-1 can be fatal in kittens or cats with weakened immune systems. Most infected cats become latent carriers of the virus for life. Periodic recurrences of symptoms are common, especially during times of stress.

With supportive care, the long-term prognosis is good for most cats. However, Vetspecialty states that “It is important to note that there is no cure for Herpesvirus.” The goals of treatment are to manage symptoms, reduce severity and duration of episodes, and decrease recurrences.

References:
VCA Hospitals
Vetspecialty

Impact on Multi-cat Households

Feline herpesvirus can spread rapidly in multi-cat households, so it’s important to take precautions. Any new cats should be quarantined for at least 2 weeks before introducing them to the rest of the household, to monitor for signs of illness (petmd.com).

isolating a sick cat in a separate room away from other household cats

If a cat is showing symptoms, it’s best to isolate it from other household cats until symptoms resolve. This usually takes 2-4 weeks (vcahospitals.com). During isolation, the sick cat should be housed in a separate room with its own litter box, food, water, bedding etc. to avoid any indirect contact.

It’s also wise to limit shared resources like food bowls, toys and bedding among household cats, and disinfect these items regularly. Routine cleaning of the home environment with pet-safe disinfectants can help reduce environmental contamination.

With proper precautions, it’s often possible for cats with and without herpesvirus to safely cohabitate. However, immunosuppressed cats and kittens are at higher risk for complications, so should be isolated from infected cats when possible.

Conclusion

In recap, Feline Herpesvirus (FHV-1) is a highly contagious virus that can cause feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) in cats. It is easily transmitted through direct contact, mutual grooming, and sharing food bowls and litter boxes. The contagious period can last for up to 4 weeks after initial infection, but cats may shed the virus for life. Kittens, multi-cat households, and shelters are at highest risk. Prevention involves quarantining new cats, separating kittens from adults, and sterilizing food bowls and litter boxes. There is no cure for FHV-1, but symptoms can be managed through supportive care and antiviral medications. Responsible prevention and management of FHV-1 infections is crucial, especially for breeders and shelters, to stop the spread of disease and allow cats to live long, healthy lives.

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