Few things are more frustrating and irritating for humans than the common cold. The sneezing, the congestion, the runny nose and the watery eyes can make us truly miserable. Unfortunately, our feline counterparts can relate; they, too, can fall victim to cat colds. In cats, we tend to be a little more technical with the terminology, preferring to call cat colds upper respiratory infections (URI).
Although bacteria and fungi can cause cat colds, by far the most common cause of URIs in cats is viral. The primary culprits are the feline herpesvirus (FHV) and the feline calicivirus (FCV). These two viruses account for about 80 percent of all cat colds.
The most common way cats acquire a URI is by coming into contact with another cat who has a URI, especially if the other cat is sneezing a lot, as the respiratory viruses become aerosolized and are easier to inhale. Inanimate objects, such as an infected food bowl or water bowl, are another method of transmission, as is contact with human hands that have touched an infected cat.
As you might have noticed, these conditions are rampant in shelters and catteries, and every such facility has grappled with an outbreak of URI at one time or another. Kittens, with their weak immune systems, are very susceptible to cat colds, often being exposed to the virus via nursing, around the time of weaning.
Once exposed to the virus, there is an incubation period lasting two to five days. Clinical signs then develop. The most common signs of cat colds include sneezing, conjunctivitis (inflamed tissues around the eyes), nasal discharge, congestion, lethargy, decreased appetite and possibly fever.
Many cat owners report a change in their cat’s meow, describing it as being more hoarse or even silent, or that the purr sounds more raspy. Corneal ulcers may develop, especially in cats infected with the herpesvirus. Ulcers in the mouth and on the tongue are a hallmark of calicivirus infection. These ulcers, if present, cause significant discomfort for the cat, and affected cats will often stop eating and will drool excessively.
Your veterinarian will make the diagnosis of URI based mainly on clinical signs. There’s no need to determine exactly which virus(es) are responsible, as treatment for cat colds is symptomatic regardless. Antibiotics are often administered with the goal of preventing a secondary bacterial infection from occurring. As with colds in humans, cats often recover from cat colds on their own, usually in five to 14 days.
More severe cases of cat colds might require additional measures. For example, cats with corneal ulcers or very inflamed eyes might require topical eye drops or ointments. Very congested cats who cannot smell their food will often have a poor appetite and may require syringe feeding and/or appetite stimulants to keep up their nutrition until the congestion resolves. Although most cats defeat the virus on their own, very stubborn cases can benefit from anti viral medications. These medications tend to be a little pricey but are pretty effective. Cats with URIs rarely need to be hospitalized.
Once cats become infected, they become carriers of the virus. Herpes viruses in particular are notorious for staying in the body forever, usually lying dormant. During times of stress, when the immune system is suppressed, the virus can re-emerge and cause clinical signs of illness. Some cats seem especially susceptible to this.
My 13 year-old cat, Mittens, has had one URI in her lifetime. My previous cat, Crispy, would come down with a URI approximately twice a year for her entire life. Every cat is different. Most cats get over their colds and are perfectly fine for months or years.
Vaccines against viral URIs are available and are routinely given. When we vaccinate cats against the respiratory viruses, it’s not actually to prevent infection. Most cats have already been exposed to the virus during kittenhood and are carriers. Vaccination doesn’t eliminate the carrier status of previously infected cats. However, properly vaccinated cats experience milder symptoms when the virus re-emerges from dormancy.
Some cats do not recover uneventfully from a severe viral infection. It can result in permanent damage to the delicate turbinate bones within the nasal cavity, predisposing the cat to recurrent bacterial infections. These cats are said to have chronic “rhinosinusitis,” inflammation of the nasal cavity and sinuses. These poor cats may have persistent:
I’ve seen these cats in my practice many times. You can hear them breathing from across the room. Most clients bring the cat to me because the cat is having a “flare-up,” where their signs are particularly striking. These cats tend to be fine in every other way.
Most veterinarians prescribe a short course (seven to 10 days) of antibiotics when congestion gets really out of hand, and the majority show clinical improvement, returning the cats to their usual state of sneezy-ness and snuffly-ness. These cats will never be cured; however, with medical management and supportive care, their sneezing, nasal discharge and congestion can be kept to a minimum, giving these cats an excellent quality of life.
Thumbnail: Photography ©infinityyy | Getty Images.
Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s upper west side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, incuding his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Glitter.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.