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Feline Influenza

By Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM, Veterinarian Advisor

Can Cats Catch the Flu?

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.

Can Cats Catch the Flu from Other Animals?

Cross-species viral infections are rare, but can occur. Specifically, cats can also contract avian flu (H5N1); human "swine flu" virus H1N1 (although this is extremely rare); and the canine influenza virus H3N2 that broke out in Chicago in 2015 (see our article on Canine Influenza for more information). There is no evidence that cats can infect humans with any influenza virus, although it is possible for people to get conjunctivitis through direct contact with discharges from eyes, nose, or sneezes from an infected cat.

How Is Cat Flu Spread?

Much the same way a cold is spread in humans – from direct cat-to-cat contact, such as mutual grooming, and from contact with the nasal and eye discharge from an infected cat on objects (hands, bowls, food, bedding, etc.).

Is There a Cat Flu Vaccine?

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. At best, vaccines are thought to minimize symptoms and reduce viral shedding. However, even fully vaccinated adult cats are still susceptible; and in the case of virulent systemic calicivirus, adults actually fare worse than kittens.

What are the Signs of Cat Flu?

Signs of cat flu (calicivirus, herpesvirus) can include:

  • Conjunctivitis with red, puffy eyes
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Poor appetite

Can Cat Flu Cause More Severe Problems?

Virulent, systemic strains of calicivirus cause more severe problems:

  • Gingivitis
  • Painful ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the paws
  • Lethargy/depression
  • Unwillingness to eat
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Skin lesions
  • Systemic vasculitis

Is There a Treatment for Feline Flu?

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.

How Can Feline Influenza Be Prevented?

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 (32 oz.) of water.

The best defense against any infectious disease is a healthy immune system. Excellent nutrition (with an emphasis on low-carb, high moisture foods), maintaining optimal weight, regular exercise with interactive cat toys, stress management with herbs and flower essences, and immune supporting supplements will help keep viruses and other invaders at bay.

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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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