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If your cat is sneezing and sniffling, there can be lots of causes. But one thing to consider is feline calicivirus. This highly contagious virus is a common cause of respiratory disease in cats, especially if they haven’t been vaccinated against it. It’s most common in kittens, but cats of any age can contract this virus.
Feline calicivirus is most commonly transmitted when a cat comes into direct contact with an infected cat. Virus particles can be found in saliva or nasal and eye discharges, so any objects that have been contaminated with these fluids, such as food bowls and bedding, can also serve as sources of infection.
The virus can live for up to a month in the environment, so it’s not surprising that infection is most commonly seen in places where there are large numbers of cats, such as shelters and breeding facilities.
After being exposed to the virus, cats may show signs of disease in about two to six days, and the signs can vary depending on the strain of virus. Often, cats will show classic signs of an upper respiratory infection, such as sneezing, nasal congestion, conjunctivitis (pink, inflamed eyes), and clear or cloudy discharge from the nose or eyes. Painful ulcers in the mouth can occur, which may lead to reluctance to eat and drooling. Lethargy, fever and enlarged lymph nodes are other signs that can occur. Cats can develop lameness due to joint pain; however, this occurs more frequently in kittens than in older cats.
Some infected cats may become carriers. Carrier cats may shed the virus intermittently and may or may not show signs of illness during those times.
A very rare strain of calicivirus known as virulent systemic feline calicivirus or VS-FCV also exists. This strain is highly contagious and can be fatal, but the good news is there have been only a few reports of it in the U.S. since early 2000. VS-FCV causes severe generalized disease in which fever, depression and swelling of the limbs and/or face can occur. Cats can develop jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, ears, skin), and multiple organs can be affected. Older cats are most at risk.
After giving your cat a thorough physical exam, your veterinarian may make a presumptive diagnosis of calicivirus based on clinical signs and a medical history of possible exposure. A definitive diagnosis is not always necessary but may be recommended for a breeding cat or if an animal is not responding to treatment. To make a definitive diagnosis, samples from the nose, mouth or eyes can be submitted to a laboratory for testing to help isolate and identify the virus.
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