Feline Herpesvirus: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Nearly all cats are exposed to Feline Herpesvirus (FHV) at some point in their lives. Some develop more effective immunity against it, while many become carriers of the disease.

Feline Herpesvirus (FHV), also known as Feline Viral Rhinopneumonitis (FVR), Rhinotracheitis Virus or Feline Herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1), is highly contagious and one of the major causes of upper respiratory infections and flu in cats.

After being infected with FHV, almost all cats remain latently infected, which means the virus persists in their nerve cells and they effectively become life-long carriers. In many cats, this causes no symptoms at all; they do not shed the virus and remain risk-free to other cats. However, some cats will shed the virus again, which is a common result of stress or a suppressed immune system. When this occurs, cats will also develop mild clinical symptoms.

Symptoms and Transmission

Feline Herpesvirus is transmitted between cats through direct contact – saliva, ocular or nasal secretions, inhalation of sneeze droplets, sharing of food bowls and litter trays, or a contaminated environment (including bedding and grooming aids).

Signs of FHV include upper respiratory congestion, sneezing and sniffles, and ocular surface diseases, like conjunctivitis (swelling of the pink tissue surrounding the eye) and keratitis (infection and inflammation of the cornea).

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing FHV can be challenging, and is often based on a combination of symptoms, health history, and lab tests. Though both conjunctivitis and corneal ulceration can be treated successfully, there is unfortunately no permanent cure for FHV. Infections are frequently complicated by secondary bacterial infections, so symptomatic and supportive treatment with antibiotics is usually required. This typically involves L-Lysine therapy, treating episodes of active disease, and minimising stress in your cat’s life. 

The best way to minimise stress in cats is to keep their daily environment as consistent as possible. Look out for signs of FHV if you anticipate your cat’s environment changing, such as the addition of a new pet or home relocation. Early diagnosis and treatment help make FHV manageable, but additional medications may be required depending on your pet’s clinical signs.

Are Your Pet’s Vaccinations Up-to-Date?

Vaccination for FHV is essential for all cats. Two or three injections are recommended in kittens, from about eight weeks of age. Cats should receive a booster at one year of age, and after that, regular booster vaccines every one to three years.

Vaccination does not necessarily prevent infection, but it is able to reduce the severity by boosting the body’s immune system to overcome the virus. As there is only one strain of FHV, the vaccinations aren’t complicated by the existence of different strains. Talk to your veterinarian about what vaccines are available to protect your cat from FHV, and stick to its vaccination schedule.

Lisa Wallace

Freelance Writer & EditorI’m a Cape Town-based writer working in education technology. I love people, but undoubtedly love felines more! I literally skip with glee when TEARS rope me in with a writing assignment – it’s a great pleasure to be able to use my craft to help their marketing team, in any small way I can.