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Cat Herpes: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

4 min read

Updated - Jul 23rd, 2022

If you suspect your feline friend has cat herpes, or they’ve recently been diagnosed, we’re here to help. 

Though this diagnosis may be disheartening, it’s important to have all of the facts. We’re breaking down what feline herpesvirus is, where it comes from, and how it can be treated.

What is feline herpesvirus?

In cats, herpesvirus manifests as an upper respiratory disease. Known as feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV-1), it’s also called feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), or an infection of the nose and throat. Symptoms include:

  • Red, swollen eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion and nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes and, in some cases, ulcers around the mouth
  • It can also cause corneal ulcers due to infection of the cornea and keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), also known as “dry eye.”

How is cat herpes spread?

Feline herpesvirus is spread through contact with secretions from the nose and mouth. Most commonly, it’s spread through saliva. Infection occurs when a cat comes in direct contact with an infected cat or an object that an infected cat was in close contact with, like a blanket or food bowl. Mother cats can also spread the disease to their kittens.

Once a cat is infected, they’ll begin showing symptoms after two to five days. During this incubation period, your pet can already spread the disease to other cats. The illness lasts between ten and twenty days, and the cat will remain infectious for up to three weeks after that. 

Although some cats who contract herpes will eventually clear the infection, most will continue to carry it in a latent form for the rest of their lives. Although they may not always be infectious, there’s a risk of recurrent future flare-ups, which are particularly common during times of stress.

What is the treatment for cat herpes?

Sadly, there is no cure for feline herpes, but cats with this disease can still lead very happy lives! Treatment is focused on minimizing symptoms and improving quality of life, which is why it’s so important to get early veterinary care to give your kitty the best possible outcome.

As mentioned above, feline herpesvirus infections may cause corneal ulcers, and detecting these is a common method of diagnosing cat herpes. To reach a diagnosis, your vet will look for clinical signs and review your cat’s medical history. They may also perform biopsies or PCR testing with cells from the nose, mouth, and eyes – but this won’t return accurate results if the virus is in a latent state.

Eye infections are treated with topical medication such as eye drops, and it’s important to make sure they are treated in order to avoid permanent eye damage. Some human antiviral medications, such as cidofovir, may be helpful for this purpose. For cats that develop KCS/dry eye as a result of herpesvirus, lifelong care will be necessary to stimulate tear production.

On occasion, FHV-1 may also lead to dermatitis and skin ulcers. In these cases, ointments and other dermatological treatment options can help.

In order to prevent secondary bacterial infections, vets may prescribe antibiotics. This is especially common when treating kittens. Some treatments may boost the cat’s immune system, which has been shown to result in less severe disease. Certain probiotics are also effective at reducing the active infection period.

Is there a vaccine for cat herpes?

Cat herpes vaccines do exist, but unfortunately, they won’t prevent your furball from contracting the disease. Instead, they reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the recovery time. As cats are still vulnerable to being overcome by a high viral load, vets recommend they receive regular boosters. The most common vaccines are the intranasal herpes vaccine and the calicivirus vaccine, administered two to three times per year.

There are methods for reducing congestion, such as using nebulizers and spending time in steam-filled rooms, which can help unclog your cat’s airways and make breathing easier.  

Because cat herpes is easily spread, infected cats should be kept away from other cats. If you live in a multi-cat household and one develops herpes, it’s likely that the others have also been infected. Keep a watchful eye for symptoms, and as with any serious illness, take them to your vet to get them on the road to recovery.

How Pumpkin can help

The truth is, our feline friends get sick more often than we think. In the event your sweet kitty falls ill unexpectedly, a Pumpkin Pet Insurance plan can help you pay 90% of eligible vet bills so you can focus less on cost, and more on care.

George is a copywriter who has lived alongside cats his entire life.