Can my cat get the flu?

10 Feb 2020

It’s a common question, can my cat get the flu? The answer is yes but unlike in humans, there isn't really a flu season and infection can occur at any time of the year.

What causes cat flu?

Cat flu is a very common disease but its symptoms and severity can vary substantially, causing a mild disease in some cats but leading to a life-threatening illness in others.

Most cases of cat flu are caused by infection with feline calicivirus (FCV) or feline herpes virus (FHV, or FHV-1).

Cat flu symptoms

Cats who are very young, very old or immunosuppressed are more likely to develop severe disease and possibly die as a result of cat flu, but this is usually due to secondary infections (such as pneumonia), lack of nutrition or dehydration.

Clinical signs of cat flu include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth ulcers and drooling
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

Those at increased risk of cat flu include cats kept in large groups such as breeding catteries, rescue centres (as the viruses are able to spread easily), unvaccinated cats, kittens, elderly and immunosuppressed cats.

Can humans catch colds from cats and vice versa?

You cannot catch the flu or a cold from your cat. And cats cannot catch human colds or flu.

Cat flu treatment

Treatment of cat flu involves supporting the patient, ensuring adequate hydration and nutrition as well as treating any secondary bacterial infections.

The disease often results in a poor sense of smell and this can greatly affect a cat’s enthusiasm to eat. Soft and smelly food (kitten and fish flavoured foods) that have been gently heated can improve a cat’s appetite. Some cats may require intravenous fluids or even placement of a feeding tube. Pain relief and antibiotics may also be necessary.

If nasal congestion is severe and breathing is difficult, steam inhalation or a nebuliser may help.

Antiviral medication, if given early enough can help manage severe cases of cat flu.

Cats suffering from cat flu need intense nursing and this includes being kept warm and comfortable as well as having discharge from their eyes and nose removed regularly.

Cat flu prevention

Most cats who recover from infection with the viruses associated with cat flu will become ‘carriers’. They won’t show any signs of illness but will intermittently ‘shed’ the virus in their saliva and nasal secretions as well as their tears. Shedding commonly occurs during times of stress (such as boarding in a cattery.) This can be a source of infection to other cats.

The good news is that the risk of cat flu can be dramatically reduced by vaccination against FHV and FCV. It is important to note that these vaccines are important for all cats, no matter how they are kept (even if housed totally indoors) as the diseases are so widespread. The vaccination will help prevent severe disease developing, but it cannot always prevent infection occurring and so mild disease may still develop in some cats.

As the viruses may be able to survive on objects for between 2 – 10 days (food bowls, grooming equipment and clothing), appropriate measures need to be taken in multicat households. You should speak to your veterinarian for the most appropriate advice.