Spring is the season when kittens are born. Young cats are particularly susceptible to upper respiratory viruses if exposed in a shelter or rescue or if they are in crowded and stressed situations.
Ninety percent of the respiratory conditions we see are either feline rhinotracheitis, also known as feline herpes virus, or calicivirus. We vaccinate for these viruses at the first veterinary visit if vaccines are due and at subsequent kitten exams. Adult cats should be revaccinated every three years. The vaccines for upper respiratory viruses are included in the panleukopenia (distemper) vaccines.
The initial rhinotracheitis infection may last only 7-10 days but symptoms can reoccur frequently. Infected cats and kittens sneeze often and have nasal discharge. Fever, lethargy and poor appetite are also common. Cats that stop eating may need hospitalization for IV fluids to combat dehydration.
The rhinotracheitis virus lasts only a day in secretions on objects like bowls and cages, but calicivirus, which has similar symptoms, can remain in the environment for more than a week. Also, cats with calicivirus can infect others for months after being exposed.
Veterinarian Becky Morrow is involved in the rescue and treatment of stray cat populations. She says the key factors involved in the transmission of respiratory disease are the animal's overall health, its environment and the strain or type of virus. The status of an animal's immune system, nutrition and genetics all play a role in avoiding disease. The environment is also critical. Crowding and stress can contribute significantly to the spread of infection.
Good nursing care is important. Since these diseases are viral, antibiotics do not have a direct effect, though they are sometimes prescribed for the small percentage of respiratory infections that are bacterial. Also, viral infections can cause a secondary bacterial pneumonia that can be fatal.
Cats with respiratory diseases often show discharge and drainage from the eyes. Some kittens' eyes are so crusty that the eyelids close. Soaking the eyes with water and warm, wet cotton balls and applying an antibiotic ointment without steroids will help.
Pills of Lysine in gel or powder form help in recovery and might head off recurrences of rhinotracheitis. This amino acid can interfere with virus reproduction. Other antiviral drugs are also prescribed.
A relatively new and virulent calicivirus has been seen in this area, especially in shelters or rescue situations. This mutation causes more severe symptoms and sometimes is fatal. Where the common calicivirus may cause fever, eye and nasal discharge and a decreased appetite, the virulent form can cause wounds on the limbs and face along with painful and swollen joints and severe mouth ulceration. Sixty percent of cats infected with it die.
A vaccine is now available for this new virus. It might be useful for facilities or rescue groups that have high exposure to sick cats.
With good nursing care, cats usually recover from the common viral diseases that cause upper respiratory infections.
Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.