HERPES VIRAL CONJUNCTIVITIS (FELINE)
HERPES VIRAL CONJUNCTIVITIS
The conjunctival membranes of the eye are basically the “pink part” under the eyelids and the lining of the eyelids themselves. When they are irritated, they redden and can become itchy, dry, and uncomfortable. The cornea, or clear dome-like covering of the eye can become involved in the inflammation. It can become cloudy or even ulcerated. Tear production can be reduced leading to a chronic dry, uncomfortable eye.
Conjunctivitis in cats is usually of viral origin and usually that means a infection with a herpesvirus (feline herpesvirus-1 to be specific). Herpesviruses grow in the tissues of the body that interface with the environment, such as the upper respiratory tissues and conjunctivae. The infection begins with an initial phase which is usually the most severe in terms of symptoms. This phase resolves but the virus itself does not go away; instead, it retreats into the trigeminal ganglion (a neurologic structure in the head) where the patient’s immune system holds it prisoner.
In times of stress, the immune system is taxed and the virus is able to escape from the ganglion, traveling out via the nerves exiting the ganglion. The result is the return of symptoms. In this way, the infection is permanent but the symptoms of the infections come and go and are associated with stressful situations.
Symptoms include conjunctivitis as described above but also nasal and respiratory symptoms such as sniffles, runny nose, and fever, basically the symptoms of upper respiratory infection. As mentioned, the first episode is generally the worst and subsequent episodes are more mild. Recovery typically begins after 10-14 days of symptoms and the episode resolves within 3 weeks. The virus is spread by close contact (usually direct contact) with an infected cat and it is very contagious among cats which means that infection is very common.
It might be nice to know if a cat's problem is actually an active herpes infection or not but it turns out this is probably not going to be possible. Right now the most sensitive form of testing is PCR testing. This test is able to detect even small amounts of herpes DNA and is much more sensitive than the prior form of testing which involved antibody levels. The problem is that herpes infection is so extremely common that most cats in any given area are going to test positive, indicating they are harboring the virus in their bodies. Having a herpes infection is not the same as having an active herpes infection so testing a cat will determine if the cat is harboring herpes but will not determine if herpes is presently active.
So how do we know it's herpes? We probably will not know for sure but if a stressed cat has conjunctivitis involving the cornea, the chances are that herpes is afoot.
HOW CAN WE TREAT IT?
There are several treatment methods that can be combined in the treatment of feline herpes eye infections:
It should probably be noted that some infections lend themselves to prevention by the vaccination process and others do not. Herpes rather does not. This means that vaccination of healthy cats does not prevent infection for feline herpes; what it does do is lead to less severe signs. Vaccination against feline herpes has been deemed helpful but one should understand that, in this case, the goal is not total prevention of infection but palliation.
EOSINOPHILIC KERATITIS: A POSSIBLE RESULT OF CHRONIC INFECTION
An especially unpleasant possible outcome of feline herpes infection involves thick white plaques forming on the surface of the eye. A scraping from the plaque can be examined under the microscope for white blood cells called eosinophils and if they are found, the diagnosis of eosinophilc keratitis is confirmed. The plaques represent an inappropriate immunologic reaction to the virus and immune suppressive topical medications are needed to suppress the reaction. Lifelong treatment is typically necessary.
CORNEAL SEQUESTRUM: ANOTHER POSSIBLE RESULT OF CHRONIC INFECTION
The Persian breed appears to be particularly predisposed to this reaction to the herpes virus. Here, a section of the cornea actually dies and turns black or dark brown. The fastest route to resolution involves surgical removal of the dead tissue and application of a tissue graft. Referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist is necessary for this type of procedure. Non-surgical management is possible with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory topicals but, again, a specialist is best consulted should this complication of infection arise.
CAN HUMANS GET FELINE HERPES? CAN CATS GET HUMAN HERPES?
Happily, humans and cats cannot share their herpes viruses. Feline herpes is contagious among cats only and human herpes is contagious among humans only.
Page last updated: 10/9/2021