Cat Flu

Cat flu is a common disease syndrome of cats. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease that is occasionally fatal, especially in the very young, very old and immunocompromised. The recovered cat may be left with permanent health problems. It is most often caused by one or both of the cat flu viruses, feline herpes virus and feline calicivirus.

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  • The two main causes are Feline Herpesvirus (FHV) (formerly known as Feline Rhinotracheitis virus) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV). They are both widespread across the world, not only affecting domestic cats, but also other members of the cat family. Different strains of FCV vary widely in their ability to cause disease, the severity and types of symptoms they exhibit. Recently some very virulent strains of FCV have been seen which affect the whole body and may lead to death.

    The cat flu viruses are spread very readily in air droplets when a cat sneezes, and also in eye and nasal discharges. This may be either direct from the infected cat, via a person’s clothing, or wherever the cat has rubbed its face. Most cats that recover will become carriers and shed virus after they have stopped showing symptoms. These cats are then a potential source of infection for other cats. FCV virus is shed continuously for a variable time after recovery. On the other hand, cats with FHV remain carriers for life, but shedding is intermittent and generally associated with periods of stress.

    Although the viruses are fairly readily killed by disinfectants, they may remain active in discharges for up to a week. They can spread through a colony of cats very rapidly, and are of particular concern in catteries and rescue centres, where they can be very difficult to eradicate.

  • Classic disease Kittens are most commonly affected. Most cases start with sneezing. 

    Signs include:

    • Fever

    • Lack of appetite

    • Less playfulness

    • Discharges from the eyes and nose

    • Mouth ulcers (especially with FCV) and gum inflammation

    • Dribbling

    • Conjunctivitis, which can be severe

    In cases of secondary bacterial infection, there can also be:

    • Copious, thick and opaque nasal discharge that may block the nose forming a crust

    • Ocular discharge that can be so severe it prevents the eyes from opening

    • Additional respiratory symptoms

    Most cats recover, provided they receive suitable treatment. However, some continue with persistent problems such as sneezing, nasal discharge and conjunctivitis. In the case of FHV these signs can reappear at the times of stress, such as taking the cat to the cattery.

  • Classic cat flu is usually diagnosed on clinical signs, clinical examination and history. Swabs from the eye and/or mouth and blood samples can be submitted to identify the causative virus or bacteria.

  • The primary causes of cat flu are viruses, for which no licensed drug treatments are currently available. Treatment is aimed at supporting the cat and treating any secondary bacterial infections. 

    Management of the syndrome includes:

    • Administration of antibiotic treatment to control any secondary bacterial infections.

    • Fluid therapy for cats which are dehydrated.

    • Treatment to control symptoms, such as runny nose and blocked sinuses.

    • Nursing care is critical for good recovery. All discharges should be wiped away gently and the nostrils should be kept clear. The mouth should be kept as clean as possible.

    • Encouraging the cat to eat by offering gently warmed smelly palatable food.

    • Anti-inflammatories.

    • Good general supportive environment.

    Infected and in-contact cats should be isolated from other susceptible cats and hygiene precautions taken (change of clothing/disinfectants) to avoid spread of infection.

  • Vaccination can help prevent cat flu. The cat flu component is virtually always included in the primary vaccination course, and often in every routine annual booster. All cats in the household should be vaccinated.

    Vaccines help to reduce the severity of disease but they do not always prevent infection or prevent cats from becoming carriers.

    Your veterinary surgeon will advise you on the most appropriate vaccination schedule for your cat.

    An up-to-date vaccination is often obligatory before going to cat shows and many catteries.