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October 28, 2015 – If you’ve ever owned a kitten or gone to a shelter, you’ve likely seen the sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes typical of feline upper respiratory tract infections. Although most of these infections in cats are like colds in people – annoying, but not life-threatening – occasionally they become much more serious.

One of the most important viruses that causes upper respiratory infections in cats is feline herpesvirus type 1. This virus is highly contagious, and especially problematic where lots of cats are housed together, such as shelters or long-term sanctuaries. Almost all cats are exposed to FHV-1 during their lifetime, and kittens are usually infected by contact with their mothers. Since FHV-1 is a herpesvirus, exposure results in cats becoming life-long carriers.

Protecting your cat from the upper respiratory infections requires routine vaccinations. While vaccination does not prevent infection, it does help diminish the seriousness of signs if a kitten is infected. You also can help keep your cat healthy by:

  • Keeping your cat indoors to minimize exposure to infected animals
  • Isolating infected cats
  • Minimizing stress
  • Keeping your cat's vaccinations up to date
  • Having regular veterinary well-cat checkups to help keep your cat healthy, which will help protect against infections
  • Practicing frequent hand-washing when you are handling multiple cats

Stress plays an important role in FHV-1 infections. It can reactivate dormant feline herpesvirus, leading to recurrence of upper respiratory signs and active shedding of virus. Stress-induced shedding helps explain why the virus persists in environments such as shelters.

While most kittens and cats recover from feline herpesvirus-caused illnesses without treatment, the infection occasionally can worsen and progress to pneumonia. If your cat's upper respiratory symptoms are not resolving, consult your veterinarian.

Morris Animal Foundation has been supporting research into the causes and treatment of feline upper respiratory infections since 1964. The foundation has invested more than $1 million in just the last 10 years, looking at all aspects of the disease, from diagnostic tests to reducing stress in shelter cats. Results from these studies have led to changes in how shelter cats are housed, and a more effective way to treat cats with chronic infections.

Morris Animal Foundation is committed to continually looking for new ways to address important diseases, like feline upper respiratory infections. Check out our website for more information on our current and past studies, and to learn how you can support studies that improve feline health and wellness.