Herpes Virus Infection is Rampant in Shelters

Latency causes Repeat Infections; Eye Infections are the Worst Part


We adopted a one year old male orange tabby in January, 2005.  He had been in the city’s shelter and then the humane association. He was very ill with what our vet called herpes virus-high fever and upper respiratory congestion.  It took him 5 weeks to recover.  Ever since, he periodically gets coughing spells, very loud and uncomfortable. Is this kind of “leftover” common?


Dr. Nichol:

Your cat’s symptoms are consistent with feline viral rhinotracheitis, the most common infectious disease of cats. Caused by a herpes virus (FHV-1), rhinotracheitis is evident in the blood of 80% of cats worldwide. It’s responsible for the majority of feline sneezing, coughing and runny eyes and noses in shelters. Despite recent advances in hygiene in today’s modern facilities, herpes virus is rampant. Many multiple cat households are equally hard hit.


Herpes infection is complicated. The conjunctiva (the tissue surrounding the eyeballs) is the primary route of transmission but many kittens are infected while nursing from their mothers. Inflammation of the nasal passages, sinuses, and windpipe are responsible for your boy’s symptoms but debilitating eye infections can lead to blindness in some cats.


Your kitty’s on again-off again coughing and sneezing have an important cause. When FHV-1 isn’t busy raising havoc it sneaks into a latent phase in the nerves that supply the face. The virus reactivates when a physical stress occurs or if corticosteroids like prednisone are given. Your cat may repeat his symptoms many more times or never.


The best treatment depends on the individual. Your cat’s congestion could benefit from antibiotics during his outbreaks. In addition, L-Lysine (500 mg. orally every 12 hours) has been shown to have anti-viral effects. Avoid L-Lysine that contains the preservative propylene glycol, which can cause anemia in cats. Last, and perhaps most important, watch for eye discharges, squinting, and redness. To get the full picture on your boy, and to protect his eyesight, have him feline AIDS and leukemia tested and ask his doctor to examine him anytime and every time he struggles with symptoms.





More on FHV-1


Our orange tabby is one year old. Since we brought him home from the Humane Society his eyes tear up regularly. Tigger shakes his head to be rid of the excess water. Our vet says that this might be herpes. She said that there are eye drops that “may” correct the problem but at $40 a bottle, the results couldn’t be guaranteed. Is herpes contagious to us or other animals? Tigger is our only kitty.


Dr. Nichol:

Your veterinarian is right. Poor Tigger is not only uncomfortable; he may have a life-long herpes virus (FHV-1) infection. Transmitted between cats through close physical contact, as many as 80% of cats worldwide are carriers.


Luckily, Tigger’s only current problem is his eye discharge. Cats with advanced infections can develop sneezing, pus from the eyes and nose, and debilitating eye damage. For many, the tearing resolves after 14-20 days but it can persist longer. Even after it stops most FHV-1 infections are never truly gone; they become latent and can recur later in adult life.


Tigger needs to be checked for tiny lesions on the surface of his eyes using Rose Bengal stain. Early treatment with a topical antibiotic, plus an oral antiviral like L-Lysine may be essential. I also recommend having him tested for feline leukemia and feline AIDS.


Feline herpes is not transmissible to humans. Tigger could put other cats at risk but if you are careful with him now, he is likely to do fine long term. I encourage you to shoulder the treatment cost early to save your kitty major trouble later. Good cats don’t come along every day.