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Norwich Bulletin - 2/4/2007

The Herpes Virus

I have had cats that would all of a sudden break out in eye ulcers. The infection seemingly came out of nowhere. One day they were perfectly clear eyed and healthy and the next their eye was swollen and they could hardly see. And then there are the kittens. A perfectly healthy litter of kittens will get a herpes infection literally overnight.

The herpes virus is the most common and prevalent virus that occurs in cats. It is very similar to the human version of the common cold. Eighty percent of cats have been exposed to this virus, whether they are indoor or outdoor cats. It is exclusively seen in cats and seems not to exist in dogs. Like human versions of the herpes virus, the organism will integrate itself into the immune system despite having been treated, recovered and cleared of all symptoms.

The real problem is that herpes can become a stress related disease, causing outbreaks whenever the cat gets into a situation that makes it nervous or upset. It might be because you went on a vacation or you moved into a new home. The most common cause of stress, of course, is when another dog or cat is added to the household. When the stress occurs, one of two things can happen.

The cat can show the symptoms of the virus when their Herpes flares up, just like humans. Humans get cold sores and cats get eye ulcers from the Herpes virus. Even though the immune system is able to keep the infection from flaring up most of the time, it cannot completely rid the virus from the cat’s system and it will keep flaring up to cause the disease. It can even be a secondary virus to a different illness.

The cat can also show no symptoms and yet when stressed, may shed the Herpes virus from their systems. At this time they are contagious to other cats and kittens, especially kittens whose immune system has not yet developed. This is why in a multi cat household, kittens often catch these viruses even though the adult cats in the house have no symptoms of the disease.

Normally, the initial Herpes infection that will occur in kittens will last for about a week and cause infected eyes. Terramycin eye ointment is the common treatment for these first Herpes flare ups and they will also give the kittens antibiotics to lessen the chance of a secondary bacterial infection. The thing to remember though, is no matter how mild the disease hits the kittens, they will now harbor the virus in its system forever.

Some cats will require a lifetime of therapy and treatment and others will only need treatment sporadically. Our Abyssinian Tequilla had the strongest Herpes virus I have ever seen. We thought she was going to lose her eyes. It took an eye specialist and very expensive antiviral eye drops that had to be given two and three times a day for months.

Then there were other preventive eye drops, equally as expensive. Tequilla’s eye medications were human drugs that ran from $85 and up. And of course my medical insurance did not cover the cat.

We had several tests done on Tequilla to confirm that she carried the Herpes virus. Her recurrent eye ulcers made it almost a sure thing, except her tests were always inconclusive. It turns out that 20% of cats will test negative using this special test even though they have the disease. So you can never be certain of a negative finding. If the symptoms persist, most vets will treat for Herpes.

As I said before, the antiviral eye drops are extremely expensive and many people would not be able to afford the medications for themselves, much less the cat. There is an amino acid called Lysine, which is available at health food and nutrition stores and can be added to the food.

It seems to help cats fight the ulcers better and also when given to pregnant cats, give the unborn kittens some protection against the virus. Lysine is used by humans to manage the cold sores caused by the human form of Herpes virus.

There have been clinical trials using lysine in cats that have resulted in a decrease in signs of recurrence of corneal herpes. This amino acid seems to be an antagonism to arginine, which is what causes the herpes virus to grow.

No matter when it strikes or how serious, the herpes virus is a real problem because it can cause damage to the eyes of your cat. There is a vaccine but it does not necessarily prevent the virus.

Many cats who have been vaccinated that get Herpes have milder symptoms and get better faster, but they still get the virus and they still shed it and infect other cats. There are new medications coming up to fight Herpes, but it doesn’t seem like it will be conquered anytime soon.

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