Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are one of the most common infectious diseases seen in cats. Also known as cat flu or cat colds, URIs are typically caused by viruses that affect mostly young kittens and older cats with weakened immune systems. Vaccination against feline rhinitis can help alleviate the course of the disease but cannot prevent all cats from becoming sick.Continue reading to learn more about upper respiratory infections and how you can help your cat if she becomes ill.
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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What causes upper respiratory infections in cats?
Feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) can be caused by several different types of viruses and bacteria. About 80-90% of feline URIs are caused by either the feline herpesvirus or feline calicivirus. Other common culprits include the bacteria Chlamydofila felis, Bordetella bronchiseptica, and Mycoplasma species. Some of these bacterial infections will occur after the cat has been affected by a virus and his immune system is weakened.
Many cats are chronic carriers of the feline herpesvirus. They can continue to spread the virus even after they’ve recovered from their URI. These chronic carriers are most likely to shed the virus if they’re exposed to stressors like travel, major changes in routine or environment, or surgical procedures. A cat can continue to spread the virus up to a few weeks after the stressful event.
Viral and bacterial URIs are spread through direct contact between cats (saliva, nasal discharge, eye discharge) and through objects (known as fomites). Examples of fomites include food and water bowls, toys, and bedding. Feline herpesvirus can survive for a few days in the environment, while feline calicivirus can stick around for up to a month!
Symptoms of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections
Once a cat is exposed to the infection, it takes about 2-10 days for symptoms to arise. Common symptoms include:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Respiratory/breathing problems
- Tired or lethargic
- Eye discharge
- Painful sores on the eye (cornea)
Most cats recover from these symptoms within 1-2 weeks. More complicated cases may require treatment by your veterinarian.
Diagnosis of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections
If your cat has a mild viral or bacterial URI, your vet will likely make a diagnosis based on symptoms alone. However, if your cat is severely ill, has not recovered in 1-2 weeks, or if you have multiple cats in the household that are affected, your vet may recommend running specific diagnostic tests. Tests for feline URIs include nasal and pharyngeal swabs to collect organisms to culture and blood work to evaluate the cat’s red and white blood cells.
Some upper respiratory diseases mimic feline URIs and must be ruled out if your cat isn’t improving in 1-2 weeks or has symptoms that aren’t typical for the common “cold”. X-rays, CT scans, and endoscopes help evaluate the sinuses and nasal passages for polyps, blades of grass or other foreign material, tumors, and dental problems.
How are Feline Colds Treated?
Most URIs are self-limiting and can be managed at home with supportive treatments.
Supportive treatments include:
- Providing proper nutrition. Ensure your cat is eating and drinking well.
- Keep your cat’s eyes and nose clean.
- Keep your cat inside and allow plenty of time for rest.
- Nasal drops with saline solution (found over the counter at your local grocery store) can sometimes provide relief from nasal congestion.
NOTE! Never give your cat any type of human medication unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian! Many types of pain medications, fever reducers, and decongestants contain substances that are toxic and potentially life-threatening to cats.
Most feline URIs are contagious and can be easily spread to other cats. If your cat is showing signs of a URI, she should be kept indoors and away from other cats. Be sure to use separate food and water bowls for each cat, and wash your hands and clothing (including shoes) after caring for a sick cat.
If your cat seems lethargic, refuses food and water, or has difficulty breathing, contact your vet or FirstVet right away.
Can Feline URIs be Prevented?
Feline viral and bacterial upper respiratory infections can be contagious, especially among young kittens and cats with compromised immune systems. The best way to avoid large outbreaks is to limit the number of cats that live together. Boarding kennels and catteries should maintain strict hygiene protocols to help limit the spread of infection.
Vaccination against feline upper respiratory infections is helpful to reduce the risk of serious illness. This is especially important for multi-cat households and for cats who go outdoors. Your vet will be able to provide advice for the best vaccine protocol based on your cat’s level of exposure.
For more information on vaccinating your cat, read our related article!
Monitor new cats for signs of infection
Bringing home a new cat can be exciting, but if you already have another cat at home you may be putting her at risk of catching a URI. Be sure to monitor the new cat for signs of sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, and runny nose. If possible, keep the new cat separate from your other cats for the first week. Remember to use careful hygiene protocols - wash hands, change clothing, and use separate food and water bowls.
We already know that stress is a risk factor for cats who are prone to developing URIs. If possible, limit travel, changes in routine and environment, and anything else that may stress your cat, especially if he is already showing signs of an upper respiratory infection.
Obviously, stress can’t always be avoided. Thankfully, there are still some ways you can help your cat if he is anxious, fearful, or especially prone to URIs. Feliway is a cat-specific pheromone that’s known to have calming effects for our feline friends. This product comes in many varieties, including collars, sprays, and wall diffusers. You should always speak with your vet if you’re worried about your cat’s stress or anxiety.
Cleaning and Disinfecting
Always thoroughly clean and disinfect any areas and items that may be contaminated with a sick cat’s germs. This is especially important if you have more than one cat at home. Basic cleaning and laundering methods will usually suffice. Common household products such as vinegar, dilute bleach, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide may be used. Be sure to follow the product’s instructions carefully and keep your cat out of the room while you’re cleaning.
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