If you think that cat flu is just a typical not-so-serious threat to your Ragdoll cats then think again. Just like with any cats, the result of this common disease can be a depressing and stressful experience for most owners. Though adults can recover without much hassle, the severe form can make your feline friends miserable because of its complications.
So let me tell you more about this infectious feline upper respiratory tract disease. Contrary to belief, it is a syndrome and should be addressed as Feline Respiratory Complex. The cause of this highly contagious disease can be a combination of several pathogens such as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) or herpes virus, feline calicivirus (FCV), Bordetella bronchiseptica (BB), feline reovirus and Chlamydophila felis (CF). Each infectious agent differs in severity and specifically targets body organs like the most severe FVR infection and CF for the eyes, milder FCV for the mouth, tongue and joints, and BB for the respiratory tract. The cat flu term can also be used for digestive tract infection caused by feline panleucopenia virus.
Before the onset of obvious signs, incubation period of contacted virus can range from two days until ten days. So what are the signs and symptoms that you should be aware of? Aside from apparent abnormal behaviours like not being playful and reluctance to eat and drink, the infected cat lacks energy, sometimes coughing and sneezing, has discharges from nose and eyes, ulcers in the mouth, eyes and paws, frothy saliva, pain in muscles and joints, hoarse voice, fever, weight loss and difficulty breathing. On rare cases, swelling of face and paws, skin ulceration and jaundice can be seen.
Cat flu can be really fatal to cats at risk like young (less than 6 months old), immune-suppressed (with diabetes, leukaemia, heart problems and cancer) unvaccinated, pregnant and very old ones in a large feline population such as breeding facility or rescue shelters. The rare and long-lasting damage on cat survivors includes chronic rhinitis, gingivitis, chronic conjunctivitis, eosinophilic keratitis, chronic gastroenteritis, bronchitis, sinusitis and cystitis as well as being carriers.
Carriers can have no signs of illness but they are great viral source of infection. The FHV virus is shed in tears, saliva and nasal secretions intermittently for life while FCV virus is shed continuously for maximum of two years. This characteristic of pathogens allows them to be identified with diagnostic aids. Viral shedding is highly affected by stress and corticosteroid use. It can spread by direct contact from carrier or patient and with the use of infected objects. A contagious droplet from a cat’s sneeze can stay in the air with a distance of two meters and still viable for a period of time. However, the flu cannot be passed to humans and vice versa.
For identification using viral isolation, bacterial culture or PCR test, the veterinarian will take some mouth, nose or eye swab from the suspect carrier or patient. It will be sent to laboratory and the result will be correlated with the signs to allow specific course of action as treatment.
You should not let your beloved pet endure all the symptoms helplessly. Encourage your cat to eat by presenting warmed, strong-smelling foods and water. Keep your cat comfortable by gently removing discharges and providing warm environment. You can also hand-feed food if necessary. Isolate the cat and seek your veterinarian’s advice. Do not try to medicate by yourself with human medicines and herbs. Most veterinarians normally treat cat flu symptomatically as they assume both viruses are involved. This includes using antiviral drugs, eye drops and ointments, viral inhibitor Interferon, mucolytics, L-Lysine, immune stimulants, intravenous fluids and tube feeding. Aside from supportive care, antibiotics can be given to treat opportunistic bacteria as a secondary infection as well as for Bordetella and Chlamydophila bacteria.
The clinical manifestations should only last for about two weeks and show signs of improvement. If not, prognosis is poor because of worsening infection, dehydration and lack of nutrition. This can lead to death. Re-infection is also possible with survivors so proper care should be done.
You can prevent your cat from suffering this disease through vaccine administration as early as 4 weeks of age for BB and 9 weeks for FHV and FCV. This will naturally stimulate cat’s immune system to be competent against infection. Boosters should also be given as well as maintenance annual dose. However, vaccination for CF is still regulated because of its side effects. With regards to effectivity, vaccination works better for FHV because it has a single strain while FCV has lots of strains and will not be fully covered.
Prevention is better than cure. Disinfecting the area with household bleach is an effective way of destroying the virus in the environment. Keep the area clean from feces and urine at all times. Before breeding, make sure that vaccines are updated and preliminary tests were conducted. You can also promote suckling of mother’s milk for the kitten acquisition of antibodies. Isolate suspect carriers and limit exposure of your cat to unhygienic places, cat shows and stray cats. For cat handlers and owners, practice diligent hand washing and responsible breeding. They can apply barrier nursing, draught-free ventilation and isolating newly acquired cats as well as proper nutrition and management practices to ensure good health.