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Pox Infection in Cats

By Karen A. Moriello, DVM, DACVD, Professor of Dermatology, Department of Medical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Thomas R. Klei, PhD, Boyd Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Advanced Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine and Louisiana Agriculture Experiment Station, Louisiana State University
David Stiller, MS, PhD, Research Entomologist, Animal Disease Research Unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, University of Idaho
Stephen D. White, DVM, DACVD, Professor and Chief of Service, Dermatology, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital; Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis
Michael W. Dryden, DVM, PhD, DACVM, University Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Parasitology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University
Carol S. Foil, DVM, MS, DACVD, Professor, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine
Paul Gibbs, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, Professor Emeritus, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida
John E. Lloyd, BS, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Entomology, University of Wyoming
Bernard Mignon, DVM, PhD, DEVPC, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, Parasitology and Parasitic Diseases, University of Liège
Wayne Rosenkrantz, DVM, DACVD,
Patricia A. Talcott, MS, DVM, PhD, DABVT, Associate Professor, Department of Food Science and Toxicology, Holm Research Center, University of Idaho
Alice E. Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, Director; Director, Animal Oncology Consultation Service; Pawspice
Patricia D. White, DVM, MS, DACVD,

Also see professional content regarding pox diseases.

One pox virus is known to infect cats. It has been reported occasionally in the United Kingdom (Great Britain) and Western Europe, but not in the United States. The virus is indistinguishable from cowpox virus. Cats are believed to contract this virus while hunting. Most infected cats are from rural environments and are known to hunt rodents, which are believed to be the reservoir host. Infection in cats is seasonal with most cases occurring between September and November.

Most cats with pox virus infections have a history of a single affected area, usually on the head, neck, or forelimb. The primary abnormality can vary from a small scabbed wound to a large abscess. Widespread secondary areas start appearing about 7 to 10 days after the primary one. These develop into well-defined, circular ulcers about 0.125 to 0.25 inches (0.5 to 1 centimeters) in diameter. The sores become covered with scabs. Healing is complete in about 6 weeks. Many cats show no signs other than the affected areas of skin, but about 25% develop mild nose or eye infections. In rare cases, cats may develop a severe generalized form of the disease that affects the liver, lungs, trachea, bronchial tissues, the mouth lining, and the small intestine.

Laboratory tests can confirm a diagnosis of pox infection. Veterinarians will usually suspect a pox infection if the cat is from an area where the disease is known and the cat has a habit of hunting.

Prompt diagnosis is important because steroid treatment (which is often used for other skin conditions) is not appropriate for pox infections. The virus can also cause localized skin disease in people, so appropriate precautions to minimize contact with infected cats should be taken. For pet cats, supportive treatment—usually including broad-spectrum anti-biotics and fluid treatment—is generally successful and most cats recover from the infection.