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My cat has cat flu, how should I treat it?

Why is my cat sneezing a lot? You might be dealing with cat flu, which is a serious infectious disease that spreads mainly among cats. The symptoms could become very severe, and worrying for both you and your cat. You need to act quickly if you want to avoid permanent harm. Read on to learn more about what cat flu is, cat flu symptoms and the treatment.

What is cat flu?

This condition, also called feline influenza or snuffles, is caused mainly by one of two viruses:

  • feline calicivirus (FCV)
  • feline herpes virus 1 (FHV)

These viruses are spread mainly by droplets of moisture, and spread easily because of the cat sneezing a lot. Once a cat is infected by the virus it affects all the mucous membranes in their body and they can get very sick.

The feline herpes virus is the more serious of the two infections and could cause severe and sometimes even life-threatening symptoms. Cats that were infected with FHV will carry it in their bodies for the rest of their lives. The virus can become reactivated during periods of stress and then the cat could spread it as well. This partly explains why a cattery is often the source of infection as cats would naturally be stressed in this strange environment.

A cat infected with the feline calicivirus usually experiences milder feline influenza symptoms. Cat sneezing is much less than with the herpes virus and sometimes the only symptom is sores on the tongue, palate and oral cavity. This infection is often missed and therefore the virus could spread easily. Owners are not aware that their cat is infected and then the cat is not kept away from other cats.

Where do cats get cat flu?

The disease occurs most often in places where many cats are housed together, like animal shelters and catteries. This is why most boarding catteries will ask you to provide proof that your cat has been vaccinated.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that your cat living alone with you cannot get infected. The virus can spread in three ways:

  • Through direct contact with an infected cat or kitten. Even cats that have had the disease before can still carry the virus.
  • By coming into contact with virus particles on objects. The virus can survive for a week after cats have spread it through droplets from their eyes, nose and mouth.
  • While people cannot get the disease themselves, they could carry droplets containing the virus on their clothes and pass it on to other cats.

Whenever you visit your vet there is a good chance that you will encounter cats that carry the virus. This is why even your indoor cat should always be vaccinated against snuffles. Indoor cats are at a lower risk, but the possibility that they might be infected can never be ruled out completely.

Are some cats more susceptible to cat flu?

Snub-nosed cats like Persians, Himalayans and Exotic Shorthairs are particularly prone to snuffles. Furthermore, very young and very old cats tend to get much sicker if they are infected. The likelihood of serious symptoms from the illness increases when cats are not vaccinated or they have low resistance.

The above refers to cats more likely to become infected or to develop more severe symptoms when they do. However, this does not mean that your healthy cat of a different breed is protected against infection. You should vaccinate your cat even if they are not in the high risk group.

If one of several cats in your household gets the flu it is best to keep the sick cat isolated until their symptoms have disappeared completely. You don’t have to give your other cats any preventive medication. Furthermore, people cannot get this virus and you don’t have to worry about your other pets either.

Cat flu symptoms

The most significant symptoms of this illness are:

  • Your cat sneezing a lot is usually the first sign that something is wrong. This is the main reason why the disease is called cat flu. Every cat sneezes from time to time, but your cat sneezing a lot usually means that you are probably dealing with snuffles.
  • Poor appetite. Your cat will feel too sick to eat. Their nose is so congested that they cannot smell and taste their food and sometimes thick mucus is also stuck in their throat. If your cat suddenly leaves a full bowl of food, it is almost always a sign that something is wrong.
  • A fever. When cats are feverish their heart rate and breathing are faster and they might also shiver. You could use a special anal thermometer for cats to measure their temperature. A cat’s normal body temperature is between 38 and 39.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Mucus coming out of their eyes and nose. Excess mucus is discharged from the nose, mouth and eyes and then dries out and gets hard. This could be very uncomfortable for your cat. The mucus could be either completely clear or slightly yellow.
  • Lethargy. A drop in energy is not necessarily a symptom of cat flu, but it is always an indication that your cat is not well. It means that your cat is feeling so sick that it is easier to lie down. Just think about what you do when you have the flu.
  • Drooling, shortness of breath and mouth ulcers could be further signs of snuffles.

What should I do if I think my cat has cat flu?

Your cat sneezing a lot, with or without any other cat flu symptoms, means that you should contact your vet right away. They will ask you to visit the practice but will often give you special instructions on what to do when you get there.

Your cat could come into contact with other cats in the waiting room and then spread the virus. For this reason most vets will ask you to use another entrance or to wait in your car until they are ready to see your cat.

Usually the vet will see you right away. The combination of your cat’s symptoms and some background information about where your cat has been will usually be enough for your vet to confirm the diagnosis of feline influenza. However, if there is some doubt a throat or nasal swab could be taken and sent to a laboratory to confirm the presence of FHV or FCV.

Treating cat flu

Not every cat gets the same treatment for this infection. Vaccinated cats are often only given antibiotics to prevent additional bacterial infections. There is no specific treatment or medicine for this viral illness and the cat flu symptoms will resolve after a few days.

Severely ill cats might be given an IV for extra fluids and medication to thin the mucus. Your cat might also be given an injection to treat the fever and a nasal rinse could also help. Fortunately, this treatment is only needed in a small number of cases.

How long will the excessive cat sneezing last?

Most cats will recover fully but, especially in the case of an FHV infection, it could take weeks before your cat is back to normal.

Cats that already had a low resistance could suffer from a chronic nasal cold for the rest of their lives. This sounds a bit worse than it actually is because the cats themselves are not particularly bothered by it. They just suffer from a blocked nose more often and sneeze more than usual.

What can I do to help my cat?

Cat owners who have already had a cat with cat flu will be able to confirm that it is a very unpleasant experience. Cats who are very sick have no appetite or energy and also appear completely bedraggled from all the sneezing. As their owner this makes you feel completely helpless and you really want to do something to pamper your cat.

You realise that it doesn’t make sense to give your cat extra cuddles or a new toy. The best thing you can do is to try and stimulate your cat's appetite. Food provides the nutrition your cat needs to recover.

Your cat will more likely be tempted to eat if the food smells good and is tasty. Wet food is better because it is moist and often has a stronger aroma. You can enhance the smell even more by warming the food up slightly. Fish is a good choice to tempt a sick cat, like the organic chunks with fish or the organic pâté with salmon from Yarrah. These not only smell good but are also completely free from artificial additives, pesticides and GMO.

Furthermore, you can help your cat by making sure that they have a comfortable place to sleep in peace. Also clean their eyes and nose with a moist gauze a few times a day. To help open their nose a little more, you can take your cat into the bathroom when you take a shower where the warm steam will provide some relief. You will notice your cat getting a little better every day and soon they will be back to normal.

How to prevent feline influenza

You can never completely prevent your cat from getting snuffles. However, you can reduce the risk by having your cat vaccinated against FHV and FCV regularly. Vaccinated cats are better able to ward off the infection or, if they do get it, they might not have any symptoms or their symptoms will be less severe.

New vaccines are being developed all the time because the FCV virus continues to mutate into new strains. This means that existing vaccines become less effective. Always discuss with your vet whether your cat needs additional vaccinations to reduce the risk of FCV. To date there are no different strains of the FHV virus.

Cats that have recently had cat flu may be protected for about a year against a new infection, so re-vaccination is not necessary. In young kittens, the first vaccine can be administered in the first 6 to 12 weeks.

If you are going on holiday and you want to board your cat, it is wise to check whether the cattery allows unvaccinated cats. These cats could develop severe symptoms and this increases the likelihood that they could transmit the virus. Rather take your cat to a cattery where unvaccinated cats are not welcome.

Why did my vaccinated cat get cat flu?

Unfortunately, vaccinated cats can still get snuffles particularly at a time when their resistance to infection is low. There are many different strains of the FCV virus and that is why annual, updated vaccinations are recommended. This will reduce the chances of your cat developing severe symptoms if they are infected.

Also read our blogs on:
Deworming your cat: why and when?
What to do if my cat has fleas?

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