Q: My cat was recently diagnosed with cat herpes, and my vet says it is untreatable. She is on L-lysine supplements, but her symptoms are only marginally better. She still sneezes, gets eye irritations, and sometimes even drools. Is there anything else I can do to help her?

Feline herpes virus is a common cause of upper respiratory disease in cats. Symptoms include sneezing, nasal congestion, discharge from the nose and eyes, conjunctivitis (or red eye), swelling around the eyes, eye ulcers, fever, depression, loss of appetite, drooling, and lethargy. The virus hides in nerve tissues even after “recovery”, so infected cats will remain carriers of the virus for the rest of their lives.

The feline herpes virus is highly contagious, and the most common way for it to spread is through direct contact with the discharge from an infected cat’s eyes, mouth or nose. Typically, cats catch this virus by sharing litter boxes, food, and water bowls with an infected cat, as well as by mutual grooming. Thankfully, the feline herpes virus only survives up to 18 hours in a damp environment, and much less as an aerosol and when dry. Most household disinfectants will inactivate this virus.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific justification for the use of L-lysine, explaining why your cat’s symptoms were showing only slight improvement. L-lysine’s use in cats is based on positive findings from experiments done with cell cultures. However, research in actual cats—not cat cells in a petri dish—has failed to show consistent success with the treatment.

While majority of infected cats never get rid of the virus, symptoms of the infection (or secondary infections) can be treated or ameliorated. Oral antibiotics or antiviral medications are usually prescribed to help ease symptoms. Sadly, there are no specific antiviral drugs in common use at this time. Eye drops or creams may be used for conjunctivitis, corneal ulcers and inflammation in the eye. The more severe infections may require intravenous fluid therapy, oxygen therapy, nebulisation, and/or hospitalisation. With timely medication, good balanced diet and lots of care, most cats make successful recoveries.

Viral reactivation (resulting in relapses) usually occurs during periods of stress, illness, and immunosuppression. In order to create a calm environment for your cat, provide her with a clean litter tray and bedding, and access to natural light and hiding places. Avoid unnecessary changes in daily routines and environments, loud noises, and having too many house guests. Ensure that your cat is fed a balanced high-quality diet, has easy access to clean water, has adequate exercise, and regular veterinary check-ups.