Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’
What Is Cat Flu?
- Cat flu isn’t influenza or a cold, it’s either a herpesvirus or calicivirus
- Symptoms include fever, not eating, and eye or respiratory infection
- Many infected cats become virus carriers or have lifelong problems
- Rarer conditions caused by cat flu include arthritis, gingivitis, eye damage, stillbirths & abortion
Now dive deeper.
A stray kitten was found in a backyard a few weeks ago. Like most people do, her finders never hesitated to give her a home. Straight away, however, they knew something was wrong.
That’s her pictured above and below. She’s obviously miserable, but it’s the second photo that shows what’s really going on. This is ‘cat flu’.
You probably diligently vaccinate your cat against flu but do you know what it is? Cat flu is nothing like what most people think. For a start, it’s not flu!
Common Symptoms Of Cat Flu
Cat flu just looks like a severe cold until you take a closer look. It causes:
- Fever, lethargy and not eating or drinking
- Clear or yellow-green discharge from the eyes and nose
- Sneezing, coughing and difficulty breathing (read the other causes of sneezing in cats here)
- Ulcers on the mouth, tongue and occasionally the eyes
But that’s not all. These nasty viruses sometimes do a lot more damage. Other important effects can be:
- Viral pneumonia
- Stillbirth, abortion or birth defects
And yet, there’s still even more. Most of the time it doesn’t go away…
How Long Does Cat Flu Last?
For a simple, uncomplicated case of flu, a cat might be back to normal in seven days. However, in most cases, secondary bacterial infection of the eyes, nose, sinuses or chest increases both the severity and duration of the illness.
Cat flu is treated by:
- TLC, fluid and nutrition support
- Antibiotics and eye ointments for secondary infection
- Bathing and steaming to reduce buildup of secretions
- More TLC
Most of these cats will still make a full recovery, although they suffer quite a bit in the process. For many, though, and especially the young or neglected, long-term problems persist.
Long-Term Effects of Cat Flu
- Chronic rhinitis is a nasal infection that persists for life
- Stunted growth is common in infected kittens
- Stomatitis-gingivitis complex is a severe mouth infection
- Most cats who get infected will carry the virus for life
If there’s just one thing I want all cat owners to understand about flu, it’s this last point about carriers.
How Cats Catch Flu
Cat flu is spread in the saliva of apparently healthy carrier cats. Nearly every cat who got cat flu once will carry and spread the virus for life. Carriers are estimated to represent around 30% of all cats.
It’s not their fault. It’s up to all of us to know where the real risk is and stop it. Here’s what I do…
How I Prevent Cat Flu
The viruses spread both directly from cat to cat and indirectly via objects, people and the environment.
- I assume that every cat I see could be a carrier
- I wash my hands between each cat and change my coat regularly
- I use an isolation room for known infected cats
- I clean and disinfect all equipment after every cat I see
- I change my clothes when I get home
- I ask breeders to test their breeding stock for carriers
- I get my kittens from trusted sources like good breeders or the Animal Welfare League
- Read here how I vaccinate my cat annually against cat flu
- I never use substandard cat boarding
I hope now you understand why a good cattery never mixes cats or uses anything that can’t be disinfected.
I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit like a scare story. It’s all gospel truth but we’re in danger of forgetting how things once were. If you want to read more, visit an old page where I featured three cats with rare consequences of cat flu or here for other causes of mouth ulcers.
Related: Why Kittens Often Have Runny Eyes
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.