by Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
Yes, cats can get the flu. In the last couple of years, a hyper-virulent virus
has been hitting shelters and other high-density housing of cats [catteries,
rescues, veterinary clinics, pet stores]. And while nicknamed “cat flu”, it is
most commonly caused by Feline Herpes Virus-1 [also known as Feline Virus
Rhinotracheitis], or Feline Calicivirus. And then, there was also the startling
news recently of a documented case of the H1N1 virus in a cat.
How is cat flu spread? Much the same way a cold is spread in humans – from cat
to cat contact, and from contact with the nasal and eye discharge from an
Most kitten vaccines for feline distemper (panleukopenia) also include
rhinotracheitis and calicivirus. There is also a vaccine for virulent
calicivirus, but it is unlikely to protect against different strains. Like human
flu viruses, feline calicivirus often mutates, making older vaccines
ineffective. Vaccination does not prevent illness, and infected cats can still
shed these highly contagious viruses; but vaccines are thought to minimize
symptoms and reduce viral shedding. Fully vaccinated adult cats are still
susceptible; in the case of virulent systemic calicivirus, adults actually fare
worse than kittens.
Signs of cat flu (calicivirus, herpesvirus)
• Conjunctivitis with red, puffy eyes
• Corneal ulcers
• Nasal discharge
• Poor appetite
Virulent, systemic strains of calicivirus cause more severe problems:
• Painful ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the paws
• Unwillingness to eat
• Joint pain and swelling
• Skin lesions
• Systemic vasculitis
Cats have been known to contract non-feline influenza viruses, including avian
flu (H5N1), and earlier this month a case of “swine flu” (H1N1) was diagnosed in
a cat. Cross-species viral infections are rare, but can occur. There is no
evidence that cats can infect humans with either influenza virus.
Supportive care is all that’s needed for most cases of cat flu. In severely
affected cats, IV fluids or even a feeding tube may be necessary. If there is
evidence of a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, antibiotics
should be given.
In cases where one or more cats is already sick, taking precautions against
disease spread (strict isolation of infected cats, meticulous cleanliness) is
vital. Bleach is one of the few reliable disinfectants that can kill calicivirus;
mix 1 ounce of bleach in a gallon of water.
The best defense against any contagious disease is a healthy immune system. Good
nutrition (with an emphasis on low-carb, high moisture foods), maintaining
optimal weight, regular exercise (with interactive cat toys such as Da Bird),
and immune-boosting supplements will help keep viruses and other invaders at
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