Runny Eyes? Stuffy Nose? It may be Feline Herpes

By Sally E. Bahner

Tanya Elder adopted Paikea as a kitten. The stray was 6 to 8 weeks old. Tanya says she has constantly watering eyes, and sneezes and wheezes occasionally. More recently Paikea’s nose was stuffed up enough to require a trip to the veterinarian and a course of clavamox.
Paikea is showing symptoms of an upper respiratory virus known as feline herpes 1, also known as "rhinotracheitis." It’s the most common cause of conjunctivitis where there is redness, swelling and discharge from the eyes. Only one eye may be affected. While most cats are exposed to the herpes virus as kittens, it takes a stressor on the immune system to cause a flare-up. Kittens can be infected through their moms, other cats in the environment or through live-virus vaccines.
Symptoms become evident only a couple of days after exposure. In addition to conjunctivitis, the symptoms of feline herpes include depression, fever, loss of appetite, and a thick discharge of mucous from the nose. The calci form of the disease is more likely to include mouth ulcers. Early treatment is important since pneumonia may set in and the conjunctivitis may lead to corneal ulcers. Diagnosis is often based on symptoms, since laboratory tests may be inclusive.
According to Alexandra van der Woerdt, DVM, MS, DACVO, DECVO, of the Bobst Hospital, Animal Medical Center, New York City, "Laboratory methods used in the diagnosis of FHC-1 infection include serum antibody titers by serum neutralization or ELISA, virus isolation, immunofluorescent assay or PCR assay." She says that virus isolation is the gold standard, but sample handling is difficult and the test takes more than a week to perform.
The difference between a run-of-the-mill upper respiratory infection and feline herpes virus is that a cat with the herpes virus is more likely to experience relapses.
While not the ultimate preventative, vaccination may lessen the symptoms of Rhinotracheitis. A killed virus vaccine should be used since live-virus FHV-1 vaccines have been implicated as a cause of upper respiratory outbreaks. In addition to vaccination, stress factors should be minimized and good housekeeping practices should be carried out, including the separation of sick cats from healthy ones and kittens in separate age groups until 12 to 16 weeks of age.
According to Wilma Lagerwerf, RVT, RLAT, writing for the Winn Feline Foundation: "A ‘carrier’ cat is one who has been previously infected (and has gone through the active stage of the disease) and is now recovered. All carrier cats are either active (undergoing active virus infection within their bodies) or latent (the virus is present, but not active). Carrier cats in the active phase can become ill again (although not always, and usually not to the same degree as the first time). Cats in the latent phase only have the virus internally, but feel normal and so not shed the virus to other cats and the environment."
An outbreak runs its course in about two weeks, but treatment is important to prevent ocular damage or pneumonia. Christine Bellezza, DVM, consultant at Cornell Feline Health Center, says good nursing care is important. She says that broad-spectrum antibiotics may be needed for secondary infection as well as a topic antibiotic for the eyes; a topical ocular anti-viral medication may be needed if ocular ulcers occur. She adds that some time in a steamed up shower enclosure can provided relief along with nose drops. Subcutaneous or intravenous fluids may be needed in more serious cases. If the nose is stuffed up Dr. Bellezza says to offer smelly foods or baby foods to keep the kitty eating.
For eye irritation a homemade saline solution is recommended by Jean Hofve, DVM, of Colorado. A 1/4 teaspoon of table salt mixed with a cup of room temperature water, then drizzled into the cat’s eyes using a cotton ball; the saline solution should be made up fresh each time.
Dr. Hofve recommends l-lysine, an inexpensive amino acid available at health food stores, as being one of the simplest treatments. She advises a dose of 500 mg. twice a day for five days (total 1,000 mg. a day) mixed into canned food. Thereafter, she says, a maintenance dose of 250 mg. per day can be given indefinitely.
That is the dose of l-lysine used by Tanya in treating Paikea. Tanya also uses .25 milliliters of Vetri-Science DMV and a Nu-Cat vitamin, along with terramycin or triple antibiotic cream a couple of times a week.
The key to keeping feline herpes at bay is minimizing stress in the cat’s environment and maintaining a strong immune system through proper nutrition and supplementation.
While feline herpes is a troublesome disease, a treatment plan developed in conjunction with your veterinarian can prevent more serious complications and keep your cat’s symptoms at bay.
Sally E. Bahner is a member of Cat Writers’ Association and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is a regular contributor to Pets Press.


• L-lysine: Available in health food stores
• Nu-Cat and Vetri-Science DMV:;
• Willard water:;
• Healthy Helper:
• BioSuperfood:

For more information:

• Feline herpes discussion group on yahoo groups
• Feline Husbandry: Diseases and management in the multiple-cat environment, Niels C. Pedersen, Mosby, 1991
• Winn Feline Foundation article: Feline Upper Respiratory Viruses: