By Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM, Veterinarian Advisor
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.
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.
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.).
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.
Signs of cat flu (calicivirus, herpesvirus) can include:
Virulent, systemic strains of calicivirus cause more severe problems:
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 (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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