Four Causes of Kitty "Flu"
We're all being told to go out and get our annual flu shots about the time of year, but can our cats get the flu? Oh, yes, they can...but there are also a few feline diseases with similar symptoms. Let's take a more in-depth look at the four causes of "cat flu" and how you can avoid them:
1. Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper)
Although unrelated to the canine distemper virus, panleukopenia is often referred to by this name. It is actually related to the canine parvo virus. Its symptoms are more like a stomach flu.
Symptoms include severe vomiting and diarrhea that is not related to anything the cat may have eaten. You may, however, mistake them for poisoning. An infected cat will get dehydrated, appear depressed & feverish, and lose his appetite. The cat's body temperature will then drop below normal and he will show signs of pain when the stomach area is pressed. These symptoms will appear within 3-5 days after your cat becomes infected. Typically, the younger the cat, the more severe the symptoms. A kitten's stomach may bloat and he may experience seizures as he rapidly fades into shock and dies, even before the vomiting and diarrhea appear. When it does happen, in a few days, the vomit may contain bile, and the very stinky poop may be bloody or mucousy.
Kitty's white blood cell count will fall critically low as the virus attacks the bone marrow that produces the white blood cells to fight infection. The virus also destroys the lining of the intestines, causing ulcers there that contribute to the digestive distress. It typically attacks kittens or young cats not yet vaccinated against it, making it actually more common in spring and summer than in the typical "flu season". Pneumonia may set in as a secondary infection.
There is no treatment for this virus, but the symptoms may be treated as they occur. Hospitalization is required. Food and water are generally withheld, with IV fluids given instead to combat dehydration and rebalance electrolytes. The cat must be kept warm to counter the drop in body temperature. Medicines to control the vomiting and diarrhea can help. Antibiotics may fight any secondary bacterial infections, but sick kitties are also susceptible to secondary viral and fungal infections. In some cases a blood or plasma transfusion may be necessary. The longer a cat can survive the symptoms, the better his chance of surviving the disease.
Panleukopenia is highly contagious, and is spread through direct contact with infected cats or their bodily fluids and waste. Cats who have the virus are able to infect other cats for up to six weeks, and it can survive on surfaces for years! This includes surfaces like beds, dishes, toys, carriers/crates, and litter boxes as well as floors...essentially, anything in your home, as well as your own hands, clothing and shoes...even fleas. Thorough scrubbing with a 1:20 bleach-water solution is the only way to kill this hardy virus. Steam can help with fabrics or surfaces that cannot be bleached, but only if the steam reaches a temperature of 240-270 degrees F.
But fortunately, there is a vaccine that protects cats from this terrible virus! It's part of the vaccine that also protects against the other "kitty flu" diseases, and is considered a must-have in the vaccination department...more about that below. Most cats who get feline distemper these days are unvaccinated cats in shelters or feral colonies. Raccoons can also contract it, so if your cat goes outside, be aware of this.
Cats who survive this disease for five days and whose symptoms seem to stabilize may actually recover and be immune to panleukopenia for the rest of their lives. Sadly, about 75% of the kittens who get it will not survive, many not even lasting twelve hours after it sets in. They are most susceptible to it after 11 weeks of age, when they stop receiving natural antibodies in their mother's milk. If a pregnant queen contracts this virus, she could lose her litter. Her kittens who do survive could have severe brain damage that causes lack of coordination, tremors, and jerkiness in movements, or even blindness. Vaccination of pregnant queens could have the same effect, so it is not recommended.
Two other serious feline viruses can produce flu-like symptoms in cats, as well, so read on!
2. Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
This begins with an upper respiratory infection with symptoms like a head cold. It has a long incubation period; symptoms will start appearing about two weeks after your cat's initial exposure to it. Your cat will have a runny nose and eyes, drooling from excessive salivation, and labored breathing. There is usually no sneezing. The mouth becomes inflamed and mouth ulcers will erupt, causing kitty to lose his appetite as eating becomes painful. Loss of his sense of smell will also make food unappealing. Kitty's eyes will be become red and swollen, and there will likely be fever. Similar to the aches and pains we get with the flu, the cat may develop aches in several joints.
There is a variation of the disease known as VS-FCV (virulent systemic feline calicivirus), which is much more contagious and severe. Up to 2/3 of all cats who contract it will not survive, and it kills more adult cats than kittens. The above symptoms may be accompanied by vomiting and lethargy and a high fever. As the disease progresses, your cat may have swelling in the legs and face that causes him to limp. Blood vessels in the kidneys swell and can cause renal failure This will be followed by jaundice as significant damage from the virus causes major organ failure. Ulcers can appear on the face, nose, ears, and paw pads. Pneumonia may set in, as well.
While antibiotics can be used to treat secondary infections that may attack your cat while its immune system is trying to fight off FCV, there is no treatment for the virus itself. Encourage plenty of water drinking, and feed very aromatic food to keep the body nourished. Cats may need to be hospitalized and given fluids, especially if they are vomiting or not drinking enough water to stay hydrated. A humidifier or vaporizer and oxygen support will help with breathing. Keep the room warm, but ventilated and minimize drafts. You may use a saline spray in the nose to clear the nasal passages. Mouth ulcers and lesions can be treated topically to reduce pain, and swelling in the limbs is addressed with anti-inflammatory drugs.
After a cat recovers from this virus, he is likely to become a lifetime carrier of it who will always be shedding the virus in his bodily secretions and could infect other cats. In stressful situations, the cat may once again display some of the symptoms of the disease. A qualitative PCR test can be done by your vet once your cat has recovered from the initial outbreak to determine if this is the case. If it is, you should minimize stress in that cat's environment as much as possible, or perhaps use a calming product such as Feliway's scent diffuser or a soothing supplement like HomeoPet's Anxiety Relief or Natural Pet Stress Control.
The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, or on surfaces such as dishes, litter boxes, bedding, carriers, etc., so complete isolation is a good idea while kitty is sick. Wash dishes with a bleach and hot water solution after every meal. The virus is usually being shed for about two weeks around this time, and can live on surfaces outside the cat's body for 8-10 days. Be careful of spreading it yourself from petting or brushing your cat. Always wash your hands afterward and sterilize any toys, combs, brushes, etc. that have come in contact with the infected cat. If your cat is in the hospital, that's a good time for a thorough house cleaning. Use the same bleach-water solution described above. Regular household disinfectants do not eliminate the virus. And if your cat is a lifelong carrier, it's a good idea to repeat this sterilization every so often, especially if you plan to bring additional cats into your home.
Luckily, there is a vaccine to protect cats from FCV, described below. While there are risks with the vaccination, they are far lower than without it. After age three, most cats who do contract FCV experience milder symptoms. However, kittens are definitely at risk. While the vaccine will not absolutely ensure that your cat won't get FCV, it will lessen the symptoms and improve the chance of recovery.
Upper respiratory infections in cats who contract FCV may be complicated by co-infection with the next kitty flu-causing virus...
3. Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR)
This infection is caused by the feline herpes virus type 1, and is sometimes referred to as feline influenza. This virus is responsible for about half the upper respiratory tract infections in cats. It is more dangerous in kittens and older cats, and may possibly even be fatal. The symptoms are similar to FCV, with runny nose and eyes, fever up to 106 degrees F, depression, and lack of appetite. Main difference: there is also sneezing with this. These symptoms may go away within 2-4 weeks, but secondary infections stemming from an overloaded immune system could cause them to linger long afterward. More severe outbreaks could last up to six weeks.
Some cats with a variation known as FHV-1 may develop ulcers around the eyes and nose or on the skin. The eyes may either produce a great quantity of tears or become very dry, and will appear bloodshot. FHV-1 can cause permanent damage to tissues in both the nose and sinuses, leading to chronic bacterial upper respiratory infections. Pregnant queens may lose their litters if infected with it during pregnancy.
The feline herpes virus is spread by contact with the infected cat's saliva, tears, and nasal mucous, as well as on surfaces such as bowls, litter boxes, bedding, etc. What's more, the cat will continue to shed the virus following infection. Once infected, the virus remains in the cat's nerve cells in a dormant phase and can infect other cats for the rest of his life. Even though the cat exhibits no symptoms, he will still be shedding the virus. And stress may bring on another outbreak of it.
As with FCV, antibiotics can be used to treat secondary infections in cats afflicted with FVR or FHV-1, but there is no treatment for the virus itself. You may have to encourage eating to keep the body properly nourished for recovery. The amino acid L-lysine has been used to lessen its severity, as well as minimize future outbreaks. There is a paste form of it specifically for veterinary use that has been flavored to appeal to cats. More seriously affected cats may need fluids, oxygen support or feeding support. These can be given at home to a point, although hospitalization may be necessary if the outbreak is severe.
Obviously, prevention is better than trying to treat a cat with these symptoms. While there is no vaccine for FVR, there is one for FHV-1, and it is highly recommended. It will lessen the severity and reduce shedding of the virus. As for disinfecting surfaces touched by the infected cat, most household disinfectants do the trick with this one. But if you're already using the bleach-water solution necessary to kill the other two, it'll also work on this virus.
4. Human Influenza...in Cats?
There has never been a documented case of cats transmitting any of the above diseases to humans. But just because we can't catch the flu from our cats doesn't mean that the opposite is true. Your cat can actually catch the H1N1 strain of influenza from you. Cats can also contract H5N1, the "bird flu", from eating uncooked poultry or wild birds infected with it.
If you get the flu, use traditional hygiene practices to keep from spreading it to kitty, including hand washing, covering your mouth during sneezes and coughs, and quarantining yourself away from your cat. This may not please Puff, but it's better than trying to treat a sick cat when you're still under the weather yourself!
Obviously, if your cat exhibits the symptoms described above for any of these diseases, a trip to the vet is essential. This will help identify exactly what your cat is facing and determine the course of treatment.
An Ounce of Prevention
The vaccine for all three of the above viruses is known as FVRCP, which stands for the three diseases it covers. They are available via injection or intranasal spray. Make sure your cat gets this vaccine at an early age. The first inoculation can be given at 6-8 weeks, with follow-ups every three weeks until 12 weeks of age. Do this, and you'll hopefully avoid all the nastiness described above. The vaccine will last for at least three years. Keep newly vaccinated cats isolated from possibly sick cats or carriers for two weeks after vaccination. A booster can be given every three years, but immunity to panleukopenia is generally lifetime once the cat has been vaccinated or has survived the disease.
Upper respiratory infection is also the symptom of the first stage of the "wet" version of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), an always-fatal disease with no vaccine, treatment, or method of diagnosis. So be aware of that and read up on FIP so you can watch for the later stages. We did an entry about FIP here.
Some of the products we offer on OldMaidCatLady.com may help with the symptoms if your cat contracts the flu. They include FCV Protect, FeliSafe, and ProsPet Drops. For sanitizing the floors in your home after illness, try the Euroflex Monster Floor Steamer. But be aware that these are supportive treatments only, and none of them are a substitute for a visit the veterinarian if your cat is sick. Keeping your cat healthy through a proper diet and regular well-vet checkups and vaccinations is the surest path to avoiding kitty flu.
Sources for this story included WebMD, vet.uga.edu, 2ndchance.info, peteducation.com, pethealthlibrary.purinacare.com, petsmd.com, cat-world.com.au, felineexpress.com, petdoc.com, cdc.gov, vet.cornell.edu, and avma.org.