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Dealing With Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

Nobody likes to see a snotty, sneezy kitty, but it does happen. Here’s how to help a cat with a cold.

JaneA Kelley  |  Jan 18th 2017


We’ve all been there at some point: We wake up one morning to see our cat with runny eyes, sneezing, and constantly licking at discharge from her nose. What do you do when this happens? Here’s a quick 411 on cat upper respiratory infections and what to do when your cat has one.

Causes of upper respiratory infections

The vast majority of upper respiratory infections, known as URIs, are caused by viruses: feline herpesvirus (also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis), feline calicivirus, and feline panleukopenia. Herpesvirus and calicivirus are by far the two most common ones seen by vets, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of all URIs.

Some upper respiratory infections, however, are caused by bacteria. The most common of these are Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophilia felis. Very rarely, a bacterial infection called Mycoplasma may be a contributing factor.

Cats with feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus are much more prone to getting URIs than others, and kittens are also in great danger from URIs because they have not developed full immunity or been vaccinated. Elderly cats may also be more likely to develop upper respiratory infections.

Four sick kittens at the vet, CC-BY Jennifer C.

Kittens are at much higher risk of catching URIs because their immune systems are not fully developed. Photo CC-BY Jennifer C

What to do if your cat shows signs of a URI

First, call your vet. You might have to go in for an appointment so your vet can run diagnostic tests and determine whether your cat’s infection is viral or bacterial. If your cat’s upper respiratory infection is viral, there’s not much that can be done beyond home care. Your vet might, however, prescribe antibiotics to prevent any secondary bacterial infections from springing up. On the other hand, your vet might not want your cat to come in because URIs are highly contagious.

Home care

Just as with the common cold, home care is most likely to be the best treatment for your cat’s URI. For milder URIs, you can do a few things at home:

  • Increase humidity: Either use a humidifier or take your kitty into a steamy bathroom a few times a day for 15 to 20 minutes each time. This will loosen up any discharge in the lungs and nose.
  • Clear the eyes and nose of discharge: Wipe the eyes and nose softly with a moistened washcloth or paper towel to remove snots and “eye boogers.”
  • Offer especially smelly food: Cats’ appetite originates with their sense of smell, and if their noses are clogged, they won’t be able to smell their food. Canned food is particularly good in this regard, especially if it happens to contain fish.

You might have to do this for seven to 21 days until your cat’s cold clears up.

Sick kitten, CC-BY-SA Pete Markham

Humidifiers can help clear up a sick kitty’s congestion. Photo CC-BY-SA Pete Markham

When to go back to the vet

If your cat starts acting lethargic, refuses to eat or drink, or develops a fever, it’s time to call the vet again and get her back in for more supportive care. The vet might give her fluids to rehydrate her and, if necessary, put her in an oxygen cage if she’s not breathing well enough to get enough oxygen.

You don’t have to take your cat’s temperature to see if she has a fever. A cat with a fever will usually be a bit glassy-eyed and will feel warmer than usual to the touch. If you even suspect your cat has a fever, it’s time for the vet.

Upper respiratory infections and people

Feline URIs are very species-specific, and there is an extremely low risk that people could contract the viruses associated with them. However, people with lowered immunity could potentially be at risk of contracting Bordetella bronchiseptica or getting the conjunctivitis associated with Chlamydophilia felis. To prevent infection, wash your hands frequently. This is good advice even if you’re not immunocompromised or immunosuppressed.

An orange cat who has become partially blind due to an untreated respiratory infection. Photo CC-BY-ND M. Bolt

Untreated URIs can lead to partial or total blindness. Photo C-BY-ND M. Bolt

Preventing URIs

The beset thing you can do to prevent your cat from getting an upper respiratory infection is to have her regularly vaccinated with the FVRCP (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis/Calicivirus/Panleukopenia) shot.

If you bring a new cat or kitten into your home, isolate her from your other cats until you can take her to the vet and make sure she’s healthy. Cats can be contagious for a week or more without showing symptoms, so you’ll want to minimize exposure for that first couple of weeks.

Have you had a cat with an upper respiratory infection? What did you do to get her healthy again? Please share your stories in the comments!