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Feline Upper Respiratory Infection – Causes, Signs & Care (Vet-Approved Explanation)

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Image Credit: chie hidaka, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Kerry-Ann Kerr

Vet approved

	Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM) Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM)


The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Respiratory infections are unfortunately pretty common in cats, but are they something your cat will get over itself, or do you need to take them in to see the vet? And what about secondary illnesses? We’ll take a closer look at the causes, signs, and care your kitty will need if they have an upper respiratory infection (URI).

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What Is a Feline Upper Respiratory Infection?

The upper respiratory tract includes the oral cavity, nasal passages, the back of the oral and nasal cavity (pharynx), sinuses, and vocal folds (larynx). Respiratory infections are relatively common in cats, especially if they live or have spent time in high-density populations like shelters or batteries1.

Generally, the cats are crowded and stressed, which in turn lowers their immune function. A variety of bacteria, fungi, and viruses can cause these infections, and while vaccines have been successful in reducing the incidence of respiratory disease in cats, they haven’t eradicated the highly contagious pathogens that actually cause them.

The bacteria and viruses that cause URIs are highly contagious and are generally passed through infectious particles in the saliva or secretions from the eyes or nose2. Cats can get the infection by direct contact with the infected cat or by environmental exposure, like water and food bowls, toys, litter boxes, or bedding. Typically, cases are associated with direct contact because the bacteria and the virus only survive in the environment for short periods and are destroyed by proper disinfection.

What Are the Signs of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections?

Coughing or sneezing are signs that your cat has a URI. The most common signs might also include noisy breathing, discharge from the eyes or nose, no voice at all or a hoarse meow, and ulcers on the nose or mouth3. The discharge might be clear or cloudy in appearance and contain puss. These signs may also be displayed:

  • Not eating
  • Fever
  • Squinting
  • Enlarged lymph nodes around the head and neck
  • Difficulty breathing (severe cases)
Sick cat medicines
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What Are the Causes of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections?

The most common causes of URI in cats are two viruses—the feline herpesvirus (FHV) and the feline calicivirus (FCV). There are other causes behind feline URIs, like mycoplasma, chlamydiosis, and Bordetella, and some cats might also be infected with more than one virus.

Thankfully, there are tests your vet can do to narrow down the cause of the infection. FHV and FCV are responsible for around 90% of URI cases. Generally, tests will be carried out when the cat is severely infected or when many cats have been exposed.

How Do I Care for a Cat With an Upper Respiratory Infection?

You’ll be relieved to know that most URIs resolve with just a little time and some TLC from you. However, more serious infections will require treatment or hospitalization, so it’s important to know what to look out for. If your cat is active, eating, and generally seems to be normal, you can watch it at home. However, if your cat isn’t eating, is congested enough that they need to open its mouth to breathe, or seems listless, you will need to take a trip to the veterinary hospital.

Your vet might prescribe antibiotics, and while antibiotics don’t treat viruses, they will protect against secondary bacterial infections. Giving your cat canned food might also help because it’s less scratchy than dry food and encourages them to eat. If your cat is quite congested, warm up their food or add gravy since that will make it smell more enticing.

You could also bring your cat into the bathroom when you take a warm shower; the steam will loosen up some congestion and make your cat feel more comfortable. You can set up somewhere comfortable for your cat to rest and gently clean the discharge from their eyes or nose if they let you.

devon rex cat examined by vet
Image Credit: Ermolaev Alexander, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Long Does a Feline Upper Respiratory Infection Last?

When a cat has been exposed, it will go through an incubation period of 2–10 days before it develops clinical signs. Generally, it will then last for 7–10 days if the infection is uncomplicated, although you might find that signs of infection persist for up to 21 days. During this time, your cat will be contagious to other cats.

When it comes to FHV, many cats become chronic carriers which means they will have the disease for life. Something like stress could then cause the virus to become reactivated. Similarly, with FCV, many infected cats become carriers, and sometimes, this might only be the case for a few months. In a small percentage of cats, they may become carriers for life. While these persistent carriers are asymptomatic, they will, potentially, remain a source of FCV to susceptible cats.

cat and vet.
Image Credit: Maria Sbytova, Shutterstock

How Can I Minimize the Severity of URIs in a Group of Cats?

You can do a few things if you are bringing a new cat home that might be infected. First, vaccinate the cats that are already in your house before the new cat arrives. When you bring the new cat home, quarantine them away from the other cats for 10–14 days while they adjust to their new home.

This will also give you the opportunity to watch for signs of the disease while also reducing the levels of stress for new and original cats as they become acquainted with one another. Make sure you wash items like litter scoops and bowls with bleach during this period. Once you’ve interacted with the new cat, change your clothing.



It’s always worrying when our pets are unwell, but sometimes URIs require some TLC and time for your cat to return to its normal self. While they are unwell, you must keep a close eye on them, and if you notice their health deteriorating or new signs appearing, contact your vet or take them to the hospital immediately. Most cats make a speedy and full recovery if diagnosed and treated properly.

Featured Image Credit: chie hidaka, Shutterstock

About the Author

Kerry-Ann Kerr
Kerry-Ann Kerr
Kerry-Ann lives in Scotland and wishes her garden was bigger so she could have her very own Highland cow but thinks her dogs probably wouldn’t like that idea very much. She has a La Chon called Harry who was poorly with a liver shunt when he was a puppy. It wasn't likely he would make it into adulthood, which was difficult to comprehend, but he beat the odds and is a healthy old man now. She also has a Pug called Maddie who is a big foodie. She’s small, sassy, and every day she finds a new way to wind her brother up.

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