A cat’s upper respiratory tract-the nose, throat and sinus area-is susceptible to infections caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria. What Causes Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats? By far, viruses are the most common causes of upper respiratory infections (URIs) in cats. Feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus account for 80 to 90 percent of all contagious upper respiratory problems, and are prevalent in shelters, catteries and multi-cat households. These viruses can be transmitted from cat to cat through sneezing, coughing, or while grooming or sharing food and water bowls. Once infected, cats can become carriers for life, and though they may not show clinical signs, they can still transmit the viruses to others. Cats often develop bacterial infections secondary to these common viral infections. There are also upper respiratory infections in cats that are primarily caused by bacteria. Chlamydia and Bordetella-also commonly found in shelters and areas with multiple cats-are two such bacterial infections. Less common in cats than dogs, Bordetella is usually associated with stress and overcrowded living conditions. What Are the General Symptoms of Upper respiratory Infections? Symptoms differ depending on the cause and location of the infection, but some common clinical signs of upper respiratory problems in cats include: Sneezing Congestion Runny nose Cough Clear to colored nasal discharge Gagging, drooling Fever Loss of or decreased appetite Nasal and oral ulcers Squinting or rubbing eyes Depression Are Certain Cats Prone to Upper Respiratory Infections? Age, vaccination status and physical condition all play a role in a cat’s susceptibility to upper respiratory infections, but cats who live in multi-cat households or shelters are most susceptible. Veterinarians have found that stress plays a role in causing outbreaks of URI, and cats in any shelter, cattery or boarding facility are generally experiencing high levels of stress. Cats who have recovered from URI can become carriers, and may experience recurrences when stressed. Certain breeds like Persians and other flat-faced breeds have a predisposition to develop upper respiratory infections due to their facial structure. What Should I Do If I Think My Cat Has an Upper Respiratory Infection? It’s important to bring your cat to a veterinarian if you think she may be suffering from an upper respiratory infection. A brief exam by a veterinarian will help to determine if your cat requires medication, has a fever or is dehydrated. Avoid self-diagnosis, since your cat may be infectious and require isolation, antibiotics or additional veterinary care.
A cat that has an acute upper respiratory infection will be infective to other cats during the incubation period and for up to 3 weeks after developing symptoms. A cat that is a carrier of an upper respiratory virus may always be infective to other cats (see question “How long does a typical upper respiratory infection last?”). Cats that are unvaccinated, are young, or have chronic underlying problems are more susceptible, and may develop a serious illness. Adult cats that have been adequately vaccinated will likely only develop a mild case of illness, which may resolve without treatment.
Whether your kitten comes from a shelter or a breeder or the family down the street, it’s very common for the stress of moving to trigger an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI). Just like us, their bodies can have a virus that doesn’t emerge until a stressful event occurs. The symptoms are sneezing, runny eyes and/or nose and congestion, just like a cold in humans. In kittens and in some cats, however, it can have serious consequences. Because the kitten or cat may no longer be able to smell its food, it may quit eating. If it does, it could literally starve to death. You want to help your kitten or cat heal from its URI before it gets to that point. There are several things you can do, as its new parent, to prevent this. Keep them warm If the URI shows up in a kitten, you need to keep it warm. Young kittens are just able to start regulating their body temperatures, but an illness can really throw that off, so err on the side of caution so it doesn’t get chilled. This isn’t a bad thing for a cat, either. Besides, snuggling with your new kitten or cat will increase your bond and make you both feel better. Make sure they’re eating Second, make sure your kitten or cat is eating, every 4 hours if possible until you’re sure its appetite is back. A kitten of 2 to 3 months old would be starting to be weaned from its mother, but mom would make sure it was eating, especially if it was sick. Often, just your presence will help it remember that it’s time to eat. If its appetite is waning, you may need to put some food on your finger and keep offering it until the cat or kitten eats on its own again. Don’t hesitate to bring out your cat’s favorite food at this point, since it’s much easier to prevent anorexia than heal it. Meat-only baby food is a standby for tempting kittens and cats, but avoid those brands with cornstarch in them as some cats can have allergic reactions to that. Beechnut Baby Food in chicken or turkey is a good brand. Another good choice is Hill’s brand A/D, which you must get from your vet. It has liver in it, so if you want to make something similar yourself, just blend up cooked chicken livers till pureed and feed. (This isn’t a balanced diet, so feed this only temporarily till the kitten or cat stabilizes.) If you can keep it eating, you’ll avoid having to assist feed, which is harder on both you and the kitten or cat. Make sure they can breathe Third, just like a human child, your cat or kitten will need help to keep breathing when everything is clogged and congested. Take your softest, smallest cloth and dampen with warm water, then gently wipe its eyes, nose and mouth. This will not only open its breathing passages, but it will make it feel like Mom is taking care of it, which will stimulate soothing endorphins. You can also use a very soft toothbrush, like the tiny Wisp by Colgate (do remove the toxic mouthwash bead and clean well first), to gently clean around the nose. If the cat or kitten is trying to help itself by grooming, make sure to help keep their arms and paws clean too. One session trying to clean a congested face can gum up their arms so much they can no longer help themselves. Do this as many times a day as needed, observing to make sure you don’t irritate tender areas. Research indicates that it can take 4-5 days for the kitten or cat to get its sense of smell back, so be patient. You can also use a humidifier to keep the air moist, especially in a dry climate. Keep them playing Last, don’t stop playing with your them, even if it is much more gently. Offer toys like cat teasers and dancers to encourage them to move around. A very sick feline may not feel like moving but a little exercise will keep the system active so it can heal itself. We’ve seen lethargic, sick kittens start to clear up in hours with a little gentle exercise. Please see your veterinarian if your cat or kitten becomes very ill. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics in the presence of infection. Please remember, URIs are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are only supportive if they actually have a bad infection that needs attacking. As with humans, overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant viruses and a digestive tract that’s out of balance. This can suppress the body’s own ability to heal itself, leading to symptoms that don’t seem to go away. We’re not saying to always avoid antibiotics, but if you’re patient and do what you can to support your cat or kitten, it may have a better chance of healing without drugs that may make the URI worse. Did you find this article helpful? Please consider making a small donation to Happy Cats Haven, where this article was written, so we can continue to help cats and kittens stay healthy. We are a 501(c)3 organization, so your donation is fully tax-deductible. The cats and kittens (and their staff!) thank you! Share this:ShareTweetEmail
Herpesvirus and calicivirus are responsible for approximately 90% of all feline upper respiratory tract infections. More information about the most common infectious agents that cause an upper respiratory infection in cats can be found in separate handouts in this series of client education materials. Other, less common, agents that may be involved in an upper respiratory infection in cats include mycoplasma or feline reovirus.
Upper respiratory infections are very common in cats, especially kittens. The term upper respiratory infection actually describes a complex variety of diseases that can occur alone or in combination. Generally, all of these diseases produce a similar set of symptoms that mainly affect the upper respiratory tract (i.e. mainly the nose and throat).