Nothing to Sneeze At

Last week we squeezed in a client who wanted a second opinion on their new kitten, “Goobers.”  Mrs. Panicking had found out the day before that her newly adopted kitten from the shelter had a “very serious” condition and she needed to know if he was going to make it.  She was thinking of returning the kitten she had already fallen in love with and, to make matters worse, she herself had started to become ill with the same symptoms.

Upon entering the exam room to see Goobers I found the 8-week-old rug rat bouncing around the room like my favorite pooh character Tigger.  Mrs. Panicking, wasting no time, handed me the medical history, a bag with two different prescriptions and with a sad voice said “I’m afraid he has (reading from a small note in her hand) rhinotracheitis.” 

“Really,” I replied, almost in disbelief.  It was the first time in over 25 years of practice I had a client utter that phrase.  Seeing my surprise, Mrs. Panicking, you guessed it, panicked.  Almost on queue, the little fur ball began a sneezing attack that ended with mucous the texture of good pizza cheese on the wall.  His eyes were red, with a dried crusty discharges and, he had a fever of 103.5 (normal is 101-103).  Otherwise he checked out great.

“They’re right,” I said to her, “he certainly does have rhinotracheitis.  That means he has an upper respiratory infection, a head cold, kitty flu you know. a cold! That’s all. He’ll be fine in a couple weeks.”  He had antibiotics to help prevent pneumonia and some supplements to keep his immune system strong. No wonder she was worried about Goobers. Rhinotracheitis sounds horrible.

“We see cases like this almost every day,” I told her to allay her fears.

Feline rhinotracheitis, a herpes virus now referred to as feline herpesvirus (FHV) is part of cat flu diseases that also includes feline calicivirus (FCV).  These viruses usually cause runny eyes, sneezing, nasal discharge, a transient fever, lethargy, and occasionally loss of appetite.  Like humans, these viruses usually run their course in a few weeks, with the immune system taking charge of handling the virus.  Remember, antibiotics do not treat viruses. They are used to prevent secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia from setting up shop. 

FHV and FCV are very contagious and frequently associated with shelter situations. The virus is spread through ocular, nasal and oral secretions (cat to cat) and also through fomites (objects like water bowls, toys, bedding etc.).  Kittens, debilitated adults, and immunosuppressed cats are most at risk.  It is very important to know that your kitten is feline leukemia virus (FELV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) negative.  FELV/FIV viruses which should be tested for in every kitten, change a simple virus like FHV/FCV into a life-threatening situation.

Rarely, herpesvirus will cause a cat to have more chronic problems such as chronic rhinitis (mucous and sneezing) from permanent damage to the nasal bones or corneal ulcerations.  Recently, new more virulent and fatal strains of FCV have emerged that cause severe swelling of the face and paws, skin ulcers, and jaundice (yellowing of gums and skin).

The risk of developing cat flu diseases can be reduced significantly by vaccinating, which like all vaccines, don’t give 100% immunity, but reduce the chance and/or severity of disease. Treating cases simply involves supportive care, good nutrition and hydration, and removing kittens from continual exposure to others with disease.  And NO, Mrs. Panicking cannot catch a cold from her cat (or dog). The technical, medical term for her infection is “coincidence.”  These viruses don’t cross species lines.  It’s cat to cat, dog to dog, and people to people only. But, this does raise a great question for next time.  What ARE some of the things we can catch from are furry friends?  Ted Nugent knows one of them.

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