Cat flu

Cat flu is a common disease that can vary considerably in it’s severity. The disease can be more severe in young kittens, older cats and cats who are immunosuppressed because they occasionally go on to develop secondary infections.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Symptoms of cat flu:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Discharge from their eyes (ocular)
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Lethargy
  • Inappetence
  • Fever
  • Occasionally they may also develop ulcers in their mouth, drooling, coughing.

Causes of cat flu

The main causes of cat flu are feline herpes virus (FHV-1) and feline : (FCV), although there can be other causes as well. The viruses are usually transmitted by direct or close contact between cats, but the virus may also survive for short periods in the environment.

What can you do yourself?

  • Vaccination to prevent cat flu is the best option for your cat. Like most vaccines, the cat flu vaccine will not protect your cat 100% so you may still see some mild flu symptoms. However, vaccination will significantly reduce the severity of the symptoms and limit the spread of the infection.
  • Some cats are exposed to cat flu as a kitten; this can be quite common in rescue cats and feral cats. These cats sometimes become carriers of the cat flu virus as they get older and may suffer from flare ups over the years. Other cats are carriers and shed the virus but do not have symptoms.
  • Treatment of cat flu is usually supportive. Making sure that your cat is eating is very important. Cats that are unwell are often reluctant to eat. The smell of food usually stimulates cats to eat and this will be affected if they have cat flu. If they have ulcers in their mouth, eating may be uncomfortable. Offer your cat warmed soft foods; adding warm water or warming it to room temperature can help. If your cat will not eat their normal food, offer them oily fish, chicken or a special diet like Royal Canin Recovery diet or Hills a/d. These are high calorie diets, so they only require a small amount, and they have a strong aroma, which often tempts cats to eat.
  • Cats usually don’t enjoy an audience when they eat, so give your pet some peace and quiet at dinner time. Make sure your cat's bowl is cleaned after each use to encourage them to eat and protect them from reinfection and other bacteria.
  • Ensure your cat is drinking. Use large, shallow water bowls that you can fill up to the brim, cats like to be able to see around them when they are eating and drinking and often do not like their whiskers touching the side of the bowl. Try a water fountain or a dripping tap as they sometimes prefer running water. Cats have sensitive taste buds and may not like the chemicals in our tap water, so you can try rain water or bottled spring water. You can also try flavouring their water (change the water and wash the bowls out daily). You can do this by draining a tin of tuna in spring water or poaching a chicken breast and using the water, or making it into ice cubes and add that to their water.
  • Make sure they have a warm, dry place to sleep that is away from drafts.
  • Gently clean their face twice daily, or more frequently if required. Use warm water and cotton wool to remove discharge from their eyes and nose, try to make sure that you do not spread infection from one eye to the other, and wash your hands well afterwards.
  • If there is more than one cat in your house then try to reduce the risk of spreading it to your other cats. With highly social cats this is not always possible, and it may cause them additional stress, but if you can keep them separate then it will reduce the chance of it spreading between cats. Make sure you use separate food bowls and litter trays, and clean them frequently.
  • In chronic cat flu carriers stress can cause a flare up. You know your cat best and what might cause them to be worried. There are a number of general things that you can do to reduce stress. These include having plenty of hiding places and making cats feel safer, for example using boxes or covered spaces for your cat to hide away in each room. Pheromone therapy, such as a Feliway or a Zenifel diffuser, releases an odourless natural substance which makes cats feel safer and less stressed. It doesn’t work for all cats but it is very safe to use and definitely worth trying. Make sure that your cat’s litter tray, feeding bowl and water bowls are out of the line of site of other cats, even cats that are outside. Some cats find it stressful to eat or drink in front of a window where other cats might be watching them. Although they might have always done this, if cats are feeling under the weather, things that they have previously tolerated can become a problem.

Treatment of cat flu

Treatment depends on your cat’s symptoms. A course of antimicrobials may be prescribed if a secondary bacterial infection is present. Your vet might also talk to you about doing a blood test to check your cat’s blood count and to check if they are dehydrated. They might also suggest checking if your cat is a carrier of Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) or Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). They may also discuss taking swabs from their eyes to rule out other causes, for example the bacterium Chlamydophila felis.

When to see your physical veterinarian

  • Cats with symptoms of respiratory disease should be seen by your veterinarian so that they can assess the symptoms and decide if tests and/or treatment is required.

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