Ron Hines DVM PhD
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It is very common for new pet owners to obtain a kitten or new cat with a crusty nose, weepy eyes and a sneeze. We call these problems upper respiratory disease (URI) or feline respiratory disease complex and it is the most common infectious disease that veterinarians deal with. . These problems usually resolve within a few weeks of good care and low stress but some cases linger. There are several organisms that can cause this disease. The most common is the rhinotracheitis virus. Rhinotracheitis is caused by a virus of the herpes group, Feline Herpes 1. The second most common organisms are Chlamydia psittaci (feline pneumonitis) and Calicivirus. Mycoplasma and Bordetella organisms make up the rest. None are dangerous to humans and only Bordetella and Mycoplasma can cross over to dogs. Often a combination of organisms causes the disease. These organisms reside in the upper respiratory tract, the nose, pharynx and trachea (wind pipe). The also affect the membranes covering the eyes causing tearing and crusty eyes. These pathogens are passed from mother to offspring and from cat to cat by sneezing, snuffling and on infected objects. They are all highly infectious and because rhinotracheitis is quite resistant to drying and time, it is most easily spread. Recovered cats can pass the virus on for many months. The majority of animals that carry these organisms look perfectly healthy. This explains how a newly arrived cat in a household or shelter of healthy cats comes down with the disease. The incubation period for rhinotracheitis is 3-6 days. The incubation period for Chlamydia psittaci is 5-10 days.
What Signs Might I See ?
respiratory nose eye
Is There A Treatment ?
kitten lung respiratory nose eye
A small portion of cats infected with herpes virus rhinotracheitis will lapse into a chronic carrier state that lasts for years or a lifetime. Most of these carriers show no signs of the disease but some have intermittent eye inflammations, and draining nostrils. Others develop milky lesions of the cornea that come and go. In its inactive state, the eye lesions are milky white circular scars within the cornea. This disease is called herpetic keratitis. When rhinotracheitis flares as corneal ulcers the cat will squint and tear as eye membranes become inflamed. Usually these flare ups are associated with the stress of boarding, weather change, other disease or new cats in the family. If the problem is serious, I put the cat on one of the antiviral drugs such as acyclovir (Zovirax), vitamin A and lysine, and tetracycline (Terramycin) ophthalmic ointment or oral doxycycline (Vibramycin).
The amino acid, l-lysine, has been found to help many cases of rhinotracheitis resolve. This amino acid reduces the amount of another amino acid, arginine, that is present in the cat's body. Arginine is thought to be necessary for herpesvirus to reproduce. The suggested lysine dose is 250-500 mg per day sprinkled on canned cat food. I would give this suplement until the acute flare-up has resolved. But many cat owners continue the suplement indefinitely. Lysine can be purchased at health food stores. Pick a brand that is propylene glycol-free.
There Ways To Prevent These Problems ?
Good vaccines are available to prevent this disease. I give them to kittens at 9, 12 and 14 weeks of age. The problem is that many kittens are already infected with the virus of rhinotracheitis before they leave their mothers. The stress of pregnancy and more so nursing causes these carrier mothers to relapse and pass the virus to their kittens. Many cats from shelters are in the middle of an infection when I first see them. In these instances the vaccine will not work. Until recently, vaccinations were given yearly to cats in the United States. There is evidence that rhinotracheitis and Calicivirus vaccines do not need to be given that often. When they are given they should be administered through a 25-guage needle on the front or anterior side of a rear leg and the injection site vigorously massaged after injection. This is to decrease the very rare instances where a tumor forms at the injection site in cats.
Within the last few years,veterinarians have been given a tremendous tool for sorting out the various organisms that can cause respiratory problem in your cat.(ref) Sophisticated central laboratory services are now available throughout the United States to do this. All utilize a very sensitive test, the Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR test to look for six of the most common causes of upper respiratory and/or chronic eye problems in cats ( Bordetella, Chlamydia, calicivirus, Herpes 1,influenza and mycoplasma). One limitation of the panel is that the most common cause of reoccur rent sneezing, the Herpes-1 (rhinotracheitis virus), is so stealthy that it can avoid detection with the PCR test when the cat is not experiencing a virus flare-up. So if the PCR test is positive for herpes-1, your cat is definitely a carrier of the virus. But if it is negative, the virus might still be sleeping somewhere deep in your cat's nerve cells. So if the test found no likely cause reoccurring respiratory problems, it should be repeated at a later date - preferably during a flare-up.