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How Common And How Serious Is Feline Rhinotracheitis Virus?

And How to Keep Your Cat From Catching It

By Lauren Leonardi . June 10, 2014 | See Comments

Cat at the vet

Feline Rhinotracheitis is the commonly used name for feline herpesvirus 1, which is the leading cause of upper respiratory infections in cats. The symptoms of this virus is very similar to what us pet parents would consider a cold. However, feline rhinotracheitis can pose a great risk to your cat’s health. Find out more here.

Think your cat has a cold? Cats can get sneezy and runny-eyed, but unlike most common colds in humans, the upper respiratory infections that cats get can be serious.

What Is Feline Rhinotracheitis, or Feline Herpes?

Feline Herpesvirus 1 is one of the most common causes of respiratory and eye problems in cats. You might hear it called feline rhinotracheitis, cat flu (though it’s not related to human influenza), or feline herpes. You can’t catch it from your cat, nor will your cat develop anything that looks like a cold sore. Symptoms include runny nose, sneezing, and irritated eyes.

Is FHV1 Dangerous?

It can be.

Most cats infected with FHV1 never develop symptoms. Those cats who do get sick usually recover in about two to three weeks even without treatment. Some lose their appetite and need help eating. In these cases, the condition is manageable, but even so, sick cats will appreciate a bit of comforting treatment for their symptoms.

  • A vet can prescribe antibiotics to clear up congestion, or drops may be prescribed for goopy eyes.
  • Good, old fashioned TLC, and a warm, dry environment are the best medicine while your cat recoups.

Some cats get much sicker. Kittens, physically or emotionally stressed cats, and possibly some long-haired breeds, are more vulnerable. If your cat loses their appetite, or if their nose becomes runny, there could be an additional infection at play. These secondary infections are what can lead to scary symptoms.

  • Serious cases can lead to chronic sinus problems, vision loss, or even death.
  • Kittens born to infected mothers are usually infected themselves and sometimes die.

FHV1 is highly contagious and never completely goes away. The virus can lie in wait and flare up again when your cat is stressed. Cats can transmit FHV1 by sharing water or litter boxes, or from grooming one another. You can spread it, too -- the cats don’t even have to meet. You can carry the virus between cats on your clothes. Because many cats carry the condition without displaying symptoms, it can be hard to keep kittens and immunocompromised cats from getting infected.

How Do I Know if a Cat Has FHV1?

FHV1 is difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are very similar to those of several other diseases. Worse, sick cats often have multiple respiratory diseases at once, so they show a mix of symptoms. Your vet can send a sample of your cat’s nasal secretions for testing, but FHV1 is good at hiding, so false negatives are possible. Some vets won’t bother testing because most feline upper respiratory disease is treated the same way, anyway.

FHV1 infection is very common, especially among cats who have spent time in large, multi-cat households, catteries, or shelters.

So, How Do I Keep my Cat Safe?

  • If your cat already has FHV1, see your vet regularly to keep track of any complications, and then simply take good care of your cat. A happy, generally healthy adult cat can keep the virus inactive.
  • A vaccine can lower the chance of a cat catching the virus in the first place, but it isn’t always effective.

The important thing is to keep kittens from catching the disease, because they’re the ones who can really get sick. If you know a queen has FHV1, consult your vet before breeding her, since kittens can get the virus from their mothers. Otherwise, the best thing is to keep queen and kittens quarantined from other cats until the kittens are old enough to be vaccinated.

The Bottom Line

For most cats, FHV1 infection is no big deal, although if you think your cat might have the disease you should still go to the vet, to prevent any dangerous complications. Talk to your vet about whether it makes sense to vaccinate. And if you’ve got kittens to care for, make sure to keep them quarantined until they are old enough to be vaccinated.

More on Cat Health

All About Cat Examinations - What To Expect At A Vet Visit
What Can Affect A Cat's Lifespan?
5 Common Cat Problems And Health Issues

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Feline Rhinotracheitis at a glance

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  • 1FHV1 is a feline respiratory condition with symptoms similar to the human flu.
  • 2The condition is not contagious from cats to humans, but it is contagious among cats.
  • 3The best way to stave off FHV1 is to keep your cat happy and in general health.
  • 4Early vaccination may help, but is not foolproof.