This handsome fellow is Grissom, a lively 3 month old kitten. Like the TV character he is named after, he is extremely inquisitive and tenacious.
Grissom belongs to a good friend of mine and enjoys all the luxuries that a cat-loving household can offer. But unfortunately he had a very bad start in life when he succumbed to cat flu as a young kitten in a rescue cattery.
Cat flu is a viral illness which can affect cats of any age and breed, but the very young are most susceptible. Kittens born to unvaccinated mothers are especially vulnerable as they do not start life with good levels of immunity. The main strains of cat flu are feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus, but there are other viruses and bacteria causing similar symptoms.
The signs of cat flu are very similar to flu in humans (although it is not caused by the same viruses). Cats will sneeze and have runny noses and sticky eyes, go off their food and generally look unwell. They are likely to have a raised temperature and become lethargic. Some strains also cause mouth ulcers. As a result of not eating and drinking they can quickly lose weight and become dehydrated. Longer term effects can include damage to the eyes or chronic snuffles. Most cats will get over the illness in 2-3 weeks, but unfortunately some will die of cat flu, sometimes in spite of receiving all the treatment possible. After infection, some cats will become carriers, which means they will intermittently shed virus, acting as a reservoir of infection for other cats. Known carriers should be isolated from other cats.
Flu viruses spread very easily between cats as virus particles are shed in the saliva and the secretions from the nose and eyes. They spread when the cat sneezes, and they can also survive on bowls and litter trays, and on the hands and clothes of people dealing with them. Disinfection is an important part of prevention of spread, and in a multi-cat household or a cattery, any affected cats should be isolated.
Viruses themselves are difficult to treat and anti-viral drugs are not generally available, but most cats with cat flu will also have secondary bacterial infections of the chest, throat or eyes, which can be helped with antibiotics. In serious cases they may also need to be given fluids by a drip. Nursing care is extremely important to their recovery. I don’t think Grissom would be here today if he hadn’t had round the clock nursing care, first of all at his vets and then at home, for nearly 2 weeks. This includes cleaning the eyes and applying drops, syringe feeding, steam inhalation to clear airways and general TLC. All of this has to be done in isolation from other cats. Now that Grissom is better, he is a very well-socialised cat who enjoys human company.
Routine vaccination against cat flu is the best way to prevent it. There isn’t a 100% guarantee because of the different strains involved, but it will greatly improve the odds. Rarely, vaccination itself can have some unwanted side effects, but I believe that the small risks involved in vaccination are outweighed many times over by the benefits. Kittens can be vaccinated from about 9 weeks of age, with the primary course requiring two injections a few weeks apart, and then an annual booster.
Boarding catteries and breeding catteries have to be particularly careful to prevent outbreaks of cat flu, which happens much more commonly where many cats are housed together. It is preferable to house cats in smaller numbers, with solid “sneeze barriers” between them to prevent spread. Boarding catteries will not accept cats which have not been vaccinated.
Cat flu is still one of the most common viral illnesses of cats and can be very serious and unpleasant. It is well worth taking all possible steps to prevent it.
If you are worried that your cat may have cat flu, or any other symptoms, please contact your vet or use our interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.