As a rescuer of feral cats, I often encounter animals with eye discharges and wheezing. One of the likely culprits is a feline calicivirus infection. This is a relatively common respiratory disease particularly prevalent in cats that are feral, live in shelters, or frequent boarding facilities.
Nature of the Virus
Some kittens catch this infectious disorder from their mothers. According to PetMD, it attacks various parts of the cat’s body: lungs, nasal passages, mouths, intestinal tract, and musculoskeletal system. The disease is considered very highly communicable among cats that haven’t been vaccinated.
While most veterinarians recommend vaccinating against feline calicivirus, one odd fact is that the use of vaccines hasn’t decreased prevalence of the disorder. The virus is highly resistant to disinfectants. It can affect cats of all ages, but kittens 6 weeks old or younger are the most likely victims.
The Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences says that around 10 percent of household cats are lifetime carriers. Regardless of whether or not they become sick multiple times, they keep shedding the virus, putting other cats with which they come into contact at risk for contracting it.
Signs and Symptoms
Calicivirus symptoms tend to appear suddenly. They can include anorexia, bleeding from a number of sites, discharge from eyes and/or nose, ulcers in the mouth or around claws, fever, pain when walking, and arthritis.
Some cats develop pneumonia and subsequent difficulty breathing. Although an owner might initially suspect the cat has something like the human common cold, calicivirus is actually causes severe upper respiratory issues.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Treating feline calicivirus is challenging for veterinarians. They need a complete physical history of a sick cat, information often unavailable with feral cats or those that were adopted from a shelter or a rescue organization.
Diagnosis requires a physical exam, a complete blood profile, and urinalysis. Antibody tests measure the amount of feline calicivirus antigen or antibodies a cat has. An even more advanced test uses cell culture to grow viruses from the animal. Vets also use X-rays to assess damage to the lungs.
Treating an animal in a multi-cat household can be difficult because of contagion issues. Unfortunately, no medications are available to eliminate the virus. Often the only option is to provide supportive care to an infected cat.
Since loss of appetite is common, using soft foods with strong smells or including pain medication can make eating a more pleasant experience. Breathing is easier for an infected cat with the use of vaporizers or medications to loosen nasal mucus. Cats that experience bacterial overgrowth might require antibiotics or hospitalization for a few days.
Upper respiratory infections usually make cats miserable. Whenever possible, the best option is to vaccinate an uninfected cat against calicivirus.