Cat flu is the scourge of many rescue shelters because it is so easily transmitted by coughs and sneezes.
This is exclusively a feline disease, and although there are similarities in symptoms between cat and human flu, don’t worry — you aren’t going to catch flu from your cat.
Cat flu is a miserable condition that makes the patient feel very unwell, but careful nursing makes all the difference. Happily, effective vaccines are readily available to protect your cat, and in this day and age there is no need for your cat to suffer the misery of cat flu.
Cat flu affects the upper respiratory tract (throat, mouth, nose and eyes).
The infection causes:
- Ulceration (of the tongue, gums and eyes)
- Mucopurulent nasal discharge (snot)
In other words, your cat loses her appetite, coping with a sore tongue and a bunged-up nose.
Because of their immature immune systems, kittens are especially vulnerable to the effects of cat flu. Sadly, they may well be more seriously ill and suffer symptoms such as sticky eyes (sometimes the eyelids become gummed shut) and corneal ulcers.
There is a distinct risk that an ill cat refuses to eat, grows weaker and goes into decline. This is where nursing comes in. Good nursing care can make all the difference and can see the patient through the worst of the illness. However, some recovered cats enter a carrier state, where the virus hides in their body and reappears when they are stressed or ill.
In this video, Professor Danielle Gunn-Moore discusses additional symptoms and what they look like:
Cat flu is a viral disease of which the main offenders are the calici virus, herpes virus and rhinotracheitis virus.
The strains that cause cat flu are “species-specific,” which means that they infect cat-to-cat but do not pose a risk to people.
Just like flu in people, however, the bug can survive in secretions that are left around the environment. When the cat sneezes, the aerosol droplets settle on the floor, walls and furniture and act as a source of infection for other cats. This is part of the reason rescue shelters or places with a lot of cats housed together are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of cat flu.
A definitive diagnosis can be made by swabbing the mouth and testing for the presence of the flu virus. However, in a patient who is very unwell, this is rarely done because the signs of cat flu are obvious, and putting a precise name to the virus would not alter the treatment.
Those cases that are more likely to be swabbed are those with longer-term, niggling health problems such as recurring conjunctivitis or sore gums. In these cases it is helpful to know if a virus is involved because this could alter the treatment given.
Because cat flu is viral, there is no “cure,” and it is up to the cat’s immune system to fight the infection and get rid of the virus. This can take up to two weeks, and in the meantime the cat feels sick and in this weakened state is more likely to succumb to other infections.
This is where antibiotics play a part because the cat is more likely to develop pneumonia or another serious infection as a result of the flu. However, bacterial pneumonia should respond to antibiotics, and so these are often given to protect the patient against potentially life-threatening complications.
The other aim of treatment is to support the cat through this period of ill health. This includes nursing care such as cleaning away gunky discharges from the eyes and nose, hand-feeding and keeping the cat warm and hydrated.
The cat flu vaccine is very effective and is part of your cat’s routine vaccine protocol. By vaccinating your cat, you are protecting her but also stopping her from being a source of infection for other felines.
When you handle a cat with flu, wash your hands thoroughly (and change your clothes where possible) before handling other cats to avoid the risk of spreading infection. The virus can survive in droplet secretions and doesn’t need direct cat-to-cat contact to spread.
- “Feline calicivirus infection: ABCD guidelines on prevention and management.” Radford. Fel Med Surg, 11: 556–564.
- “Feline herpes virus infection: ABCD guidelines on prevention and management.” Thiry. Fel Med Surg, 11: 547–555.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 17, 2018.