What Can Be Done About Feline Herpesvirus?

4th February 2019
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What Can Be Done About Feline Herpesvirus?

Feline herpesvirus is very common in cats, and most of the time the treatment is just for the symptoms. But have there been advances in the treatment of the condition that could help affected cats? If not, what can be done to keep a cat with feline herpesvirus comfortable?

Feline herpesvirus is common in cats, and there are things that can be done to make an affected cat more comfortable. Photo CC-BY-ND Gill E

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

Ever since I was adopted in 2008, I’ve had trouble with my eye. The vet tells my mom and dad it’s herpes and I’ll have the problem all my life. It doesn’t seem to bother me, but my Mom thinks it’s yucky. She cleans my eye with saline, and sometimes the vet gives her antibiotic ointment for me. I don’t know why I get that for a virus, but it does seem to help…until she stops using it. I was getting lysine treats for a while. I liked the treats, but they didn’t help my eye much. I was wondering if any of you have had eye problems and if you found something that helped make it better. Thanks in advance for your sage advice.

~Yogi Conan the cat

Thomas: Well, Yogi, you should know that feline herpesvirus is very common in cats, especially cats that have been in high-population places like shelters, catteries, and (heaven forbid) hoarder houses. In fact, I had a pretty bad respiratory infection when Mama first met me a long, long time ago. The shelter people didn’t say for sure that it was herpesvirus, but Mama pretty much assumes that’s what it was.

Bella: Feline herpesvirus is not sexually transmitted. It’s transmitted through sharing dishes and sneeze goo flying through the air. That’s why it’s so common in crowded situations.

Tara: Basically, feline herpesvirus is the common cold of the cat world. (In some places, it’s referred to as cat flu, though.)

Thomas: Before we talk about what might be done to treat feline herpesvirus, let’s describe some of the symptoms.

Bella: A cat with the virus will have eye discharge and sneeze a lot. He may also run a fever, become lethargic, and lose weight.

Tara: One reason kitties with feline herpesvirus lose weight is because the primary driver of a cat’s appetite is his sense of smell. If his nose is stuffed up, he can’t smell his food! Of course, a lethargic, feverish cat isn’t going to run for his food bowl anyway.

Thomas: Other symptoms include dehydration, conjunctivitis (swelling of the tissues around the eye), drooling, and sometimes corneal ulcers.

Bella: But Thomas, how do they treat feline herpesvirus?

Thomas: Well, they do a lot of what Yogi’s mama is doing: cleaning up any eye discharge, using a humidifier to keep snot and goo loose, using an antibiotic eye ointment, and making sure a cat stays adequately fed and hydrated.

Bella: You might think it’s silly to use an antibiotic for a virus, and in the vast majority of cases, this is true. Antibiotics won’t help kill a virus. But what they will do is kill any bacteria that arise from what vets call a “secondary infection.”

Tara: Sometimes when a kitty gets a viral infection, the snot and assorted goo he produces can lead to the conditions that cause bacterial infections.

Feline herpesvirus is common in cats that have lived in crowded situations--whether that's a shelter, a cattery, or (heaven forbid) a hoarder house. What can you do to treat the recurrent eye infections that come with feline herpesvirus, and what should you know about treatments that are available? Find out in this post!

Thomas: Feline herpesvirus is with a cat forever, once they get it. That means they’re always a carrier. One of the primary causes of herpesvirus outbreaks is stress. You see, stress weakens the immune system, allowing the virus to come out of hiding.

Bella: So, what can be done to treat feline herpesvirus?

Tara: Well, that’s the thing. Since it’s a chronic condition, treatment is largely symptomatic. But researchers at Cornell are looking into treatment with antiviral medications to help kill off herpesvirus-caused eye infections.

Thomas: They’ve found that an antiviral medication called cidofovir is very effective to treat eye infections caused by feline herpesvirus. It’s only given once every 12 hours. Then there’s another medication called raltegravir, which is commonly used to treat humans with HIV–the researchers found that this medication was super-effective only when given once a day. Another medication, acyclovir, isn’t as effective.

Bella: Research has discovered that l-lysine, once given commonly to cats in shelters to prevent viral respiratory infections, is less effective at prevention than once thought.

Tara: So, what should your mama do? We’d recommend that she ask your vet about antiviral medications the next time you get an eye infection. They might clear it up pretty quickly.

Thomas: And, of course, when you do get goopy eyes, your mama should turn on the humidifier or let you stay in the bathroom with her when she takes a shower. The humid air will help loosen up your eye and nose goop.

Bella: Your mama should do her best to keep the stress level in your–and her–life as low as possible, since stress will cause your herpesvirus eye infections to flare up.

Tara: One other thing: Has your mama had you tested for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV)? These chronic retroviral infections can increase the likelihood of recurrent bouts of feline herpesvirus infections.

Thomas: What about you other readers? Have you had a kitty with feline herpesvirus? What did you do to keep him comfortable and minimize his recurrences? Please share your tips in the comments!

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