Feline Herpes Similar to Common Cold

QUESTION: Please advise if the feline herpes virus can be treated successfully. From what I understand, it’s a chronic condition and it spreads easily. In your opinion, should shelters euthanize cats because of this problem?

— G.A., Washington Crossing, Pa.

ANSWER: First, let me explain what the feline herpes virus is. The one-phrase answer is that the feline herpes virus is the cat version of the common cold. Dr. Jan Scarlett, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, N.Y., says, “Often the condition is chronic, appearing with sneezes, snuffles and/or runny eyes, and rarely other ocular changes. Sometimes these signs progress and become serious, even leading to infection, but usually not. Once treated, the symptoms disappear for months or years before reoccurring, if they reoccur at all.” There is also no cure for herpes.

It seems stress is the most common trigger to cause an onset of feline herpes. Also, feline herpes is as infectious among cats as the common cold is in people. No wonder cats in shelters are prone. Kittens, in particular, are susceptible.

Many agents can cause upper respiratory infections in cats. Rhinotrachacheitis is caused by the feline herpes virus. There’s a vaccine for feline calicivirus, also associated with oral ulcers, gingivitis and inflammation of the mouth, as well as upper respiratory signs. In some kittens, the feline calicivirus may even be fatal.

Bordetella bronchiseptica, known as the cause of kennel cough in dogs, may affect cats, though symptoms are generally mild. Another cause of respiratory distress is mycoplasma, which may also cause ocular changes, and may lead to pneumonia. Generally, all of these disease agents — including the feline herpes virus — fall under the umbrella of upper respiratory disease.

The problem is that shelters sometimes have to make hard choices. While eliminating cats with symptoms won’t totally eliminate the spread of the herpes virus in shelters, it may help some. Also, when there’s no space for healthy adoptable cats, those less healthy might be euthanized to make space. A serious breakout can spread out of control, and may even shut down a shelter. Still, in a perfect world, there’s no reason to euthanize a cat with symptoms of feline herpes unless the disease progresses and the pet becomes very ill. Shelters must make their own individual choices.

Scarlett agreed, adding, “While you generally may not want to adopt a cat who’s actually sick from the virus, adopting one with the disease but not symptomatic is perfectly reasonable. By lowering stress with a slow introduction to your existing cats, you may never see symptoms of the feline herpes virus.”

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