Cats can pick up virus at vet’s, but they can also transmit it themselves

Q: Our cats had to go to the vet hospital last week to have their teeth cleaned. The procedures went very well and, as predicted, both were back to normal that evening. Unfortunately, two days later they both started sneezing. First Patches and then Stumpy came down with the exact same cold. Patches got better but we had to take Stumpy back to the hospital. We actually had to pay more for his cold than for the teeth cleaning! Shouldn’t the vet have gone easy on us since our cats live safely indoors and they obviously caught the cold there?

A: What you’re describing sounds like a garden-variety upper respiratory infection (also referred to as a URI). While both viruses and bacteria can lead to a URI, the most common cause of a “cold” under the conditions you describe is a virus. Feline Herpesvirus Type 1 is perhaps the most typical of these.

Here’s some background: This upper respiratory virus is common in the U.S. feline population. Cats who come from unvaccinated community cat settings (which includes free-roaming and feral cats) will frequently suffer from this highly communicable condition. But, unbeknownst to their owners, many indoor cats can be infected too –– even if they’re vaccinated against it!

That’s because this disease can cause a “carrier” state in cats that have been infected and recovered. Indeed, once infected by Feline Herpesvirus Type 1, all cats will become carriers for life. This is the case even if the infection occurred during infancy (i.e., before you adopted them).

The importance of this carrier state is not just that carriers are capable of spreading the infection, but also that female carriers can pass the infection along to their newborn kittens. And since most owned cats in the U.S. are born to cats likely to harbor this upper respiratory virus, even the healthiest indoor-only cat is a potential carrier.

So how does this apply to Patches and Stumpy? Let me explain: Cats who are carriers of Feline Herpesvirus Type 1, in particular, are not only capable of passing on the infection, but the virus is capable of reactivating and making them sick all over again. This process is most likely to occur during times of stress — like a trip to the vet’s.

So should your vet hospital go easy on you? Maybe so. However, the honest truth is that your cats are less likely to have picked something up at the vet’s than they are to have harbored it forever.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to