Herpes virus is the most important of the viruses making up the feline ‘snuffles’ complex. It causes an infection of the upper respiratory tract and eyes of both domestic and exotic cats. It is caused by feline herpes virus type 1 and does not affect people, dogs and other animals. It is extremely ‘catchy’ between cats and may cause severe disease in kittens occasionally even resulting in death.
Feline herpes virus has been reported to have caused: A fatal encephalitis in 3 lions in a German zoo. Problems in captive cheetah breeding due to corneal ulceration and respiratory tract infections.
Transmission occurs via direct contact with lots of virus shed in the nasal and eye secretions and saliva. Sneezing propels virus attached to water droplets; in the cat viral winter Olympics some virus was sneezed more than 1 metre. The source of infection is either sick cats or recovered cats that shed the virus during periods of stress for a few days or long periods at a time.
Why is the disease so common in kittens?
As any breeder knows, one of the most important aspects of kitten survival is that the kitten takes in milk from the nursing queen in the first few hours after birth. That first milk is called colostrum and is high in antibodies that are absorbed in the new-born kittens without being digested. A miracle of nature is that the antibodies are absorbed ‘intact’ and reach the kitten’s blood directly. So now it should be clear why vaccination is important for breeding queens. At about 6 weeks of age, the level of antibodies from the queen starts declining and the kitten still has not made it’s own antibodies and so succumbs to infection.
Course of the viral disease.
In general, the feline herpes infection runs it’s course in a week but secondary bacterial infections can cause clinical disease to persist for months. The common signs are sneezing and sneezing with eye discharge visible in the middle corners of the eyes. Depending on the immune status, more severe signs may be seen. A nasal discharge that starts off clear becomes more pussy, the eyes in some case, become pasted together. Note: Very important for breeders that an eye discharge in a kitten at around 14 days old resulting in the eyes not opening naturally will often cause permanent eye disease if not treated promptly. ‘Opthalmia neonarium’ can cause permanent vision and eventual eyeball loss.Many ‘fading’ kittens dying two to three weeks after birth have herpes virus infection. It can be confirmed relatively easily and cheaply by post mortem examination and histopathology. Feline herpes virus can cause ulcerations in the eye and your vet may stain the eye with special stains to confirm the presence of ulcers.
Feline viral respiratory disease is usually diagnosed as a syndrome and treatment is similar in most cases. Clinically to differentiate herpes virus from the other commonly encountered respiratory virus, feline calcivirus, is not always easy or necessary. A sudden outbreak or respiratory infection with extensive sneezing and conjunctivitis is usually cause by herpes virus. However, corneal ulceration is almost invariably associated with herpes virus. Cells from the nose and eye obtained by swabbing can be stained for the presence of herpes virus inclusions. Although both viruses are easily isolated in the laboratory, it requires appropriate transport media and is time consuming and relatively expensive.
- Intensive loving care. Remove nasal and ocular secretions as they build up.
- Keep the patient in a dry, warm and humidified environment. Sheepskins are excellent.
- Cater to the animal’s psychological needs. Companionship, body warmth, fussy food whims.
- Then it is appropriate to use DRUGS. Broad-spectrum antibiotics usually given twice a day. Nasal drops to loosen thick secretions, as antibacterials, decongestants. Eye drops applied 4 to 6 times a day – there are specific anti-viral eye drops that can be used.
- Human anti-viral drugs – still in its infancy – no proven efficacy in cats.
- In severe cases with a kitten not eating, may get a stomach tube inserted into the stomach – as nutritional demands need to be met..