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Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

cat upper respiratory infections

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.

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In cases of respiratory infections, immediate and appropriate treatment is important to prevent the signs from becoming worse. If left untreated, feline respiratory infections can cause severe deterioration in the animal’s health and can be fatal.

We will discuss the common causes of respiratory infections in cats, how they can be diagnosed, and what the treatment options are to help the infected cat recover and feel better.

What causes upper respiratory infections in cats?

Respiratory infections in cats are caused by different pathogens and result in a wide range of clinical signs depending on the specific cause and the severity of the infection. Listed below are some of the most common causes of respiratory infection seen in cats:

Viral Infections

Viral pathogens are the most common cause of respiratory infections reported in cats. Several viruses in cats also cause moderate to severe respiratory problems. Viruses like Herpesvirus and Calicivirus invade the mucosal lining of the cat’s upper respiratory tract and cause inflammation resulting in signs like coughing, sneezing, and profuse nose and eye discharge. This also makes the respiratory tract vulnerable to secondary bacterial infection, a common complication in viral diseases.

Viral infections mainly affect young kittens but adults are susceptible too. Symptoms associated with it can vary but most adults that contract the infection usually present with mild symptoms. Kittens, however, don’t have a fully developed immune system yet and can have severe clinical signs when infected. If not treated accordingly, viral respiratory infections in young kittens can be fatal.

Bacterial Infections

The initial presentation of bacterial respiratory infection in cats is usually sneezing and coughing accompanied by profuse nasal discharge. The color of the nasal discharge in cases of bacterial respiratory infections is usually green or yellow, and is usually very thick and mucoid, and can obstruct the animal’s nasal passages.

The most common bacterial species isolated from cats with respiratory infections are Chlamydia felis and Bordetella sp. Between the two, Chlamydia infections are more common in cats and cause severe nasal and ocular discharge. Kittens are more vulnerable to getting Chlamydia infections than adults, but all cats can be susceptible regardless of age.

Feline Bordetella infection is a highly contagious infection in cats that causes inflammation of the upper respiratory tract lining. Bordetella usually infects unvaccinated cats and is commonly seen in catteries or facilities with a high population of cats that are in close contact with each other. This infection is more common in dogs than in cats but transmission between species is possible. The infection usually causes mild respiratory signs such as sneezing, coughing, and watery nasal discharges.

Fungal Infection

Fungal respiratory infections in cats are uncommon. Fungal organisms that cause respiratory infection in cats are mostly found in the environment, and cats become infected when they’re exposed to fungal reservoirs like decaying plants and trees, bird droppings, and damp soil. Secondary bacterial infections may also occur in cats with concurrent fungal infections, and proper diagnosis and treatment for both are necessary to address symptoms.

Symptoms in cats with respiratory fungal infections include sneezing, coughing, retching, and nasal discharge that can vary in color depending on the specific fungal organism and the presence of secondary bacterial infections. If left untreated, it can infect the lower respiratory tract and cause severe respiratory signs like pneumonia and breathing problems.

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
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Respiratory/breathing problems
  • Tired or lethargic
  • Fever
  • 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, foxtails, 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 is showing signs of a possible respiratory infection that is not improving with supportive treatments, it’s best to bring your cat to your vet for a thorough assessment and diagnosis. Your vet will do a physical exam and perform several diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of an infection and evaluate the severity of the condition. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your vet will recommend a treatment approach depending on the specific cause of infection and the severity of the disease. Treatment will fall basically under these 3 categories:

1. Specific Treatment - This treatment aims to address the specific cause of the infection. Depending on the diagnosis, your cat may need antiviral, antibacterial, or antifungal medication. These medications are formulated to help eliminate the causative pathogen which helps clear the infection. In certain situations where secondary infections occur, you may need to give your cat a combination of medications to address both primary and secondary infections. Duration of treatment will depend on how severe the infection is but usually lasts for about 1-2 weeks.

2. Symptomatic Treatment - Medications directed to eliminate the infection are often effective but may not be enough to help the infected animal. This is where symptomatic treatments come in. These types of treatment will help control any signs caused by the infection such as sneezing, coughing, nasal congestion, and discharge.

Medications like decongestants can help control nasal discharge and help your cat breathe easier. Nebulization with saline solution can also help decongest the nasal passages and support the animal’s breathing. Medications like corticosteroids can be given orally or mixed with a nebulizing solution to help control the inflammation in the respiratory tract.

Most symptomatic treatments are over the counter and can be obtained without a prescription, but advice from a vet is needed for proper dosing and administration of the medications for the patient.

3. Supportive Treatment - Occasionally, feline patients suffering from respiratory infections have difficulties recovering from the disease despite specific and symptomatic treatments. Certain supplements and medications can be added to support the animal’s body as it fights off the infection. This can come in the form of immune stimulants and nutritional support, which help improve the body’s response to the medications and help speed up recovery.

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.

Preventive vaccination

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.

Avoid stress

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.

Read more:

Common Diseases in Cats

Safety Considerations for Indoor and Outdoor Cats

Toys, Games, and Puzzles! How to Entertain Your Indoor Cat

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