Why do Shelter Kittens Cough?


We have a kitten. I adopted her from a pets and people shelter. I took her in last week for her second set of vaccines and the next day she started coughing. It sounds like she’s hacking up a hairball but nothing comes up and she’s not long haired. I have been reading online and it says to take her in immediately. She’s eating fine but not drinking as much water as usual.

Oklahoma City Oklahoma

Two factors could be playing a role in your kitten’s coughing.

The first and most likely factor is that she was recently adopted. Cats and kittens with a history of recent rehousing often develop respiratory infections.

Moving is stressful. Stress weakens the immune system. A weakened immune system predisposes cats and kittens to opportunistic respiratory infections that can lead to coughing.

Cats and kittens who recently lived in shelters have especially high rates of respiratory infections. Shelter environments are generally stressful, and cohabitation with large numbers of other stressed animals is a recipe for the spread of disease.

The second factor that might be playing a role in your kitten’s symptoms is the vaccine that she received. Vet visits, unfortunately, also can be stressful for cats. And vaccines are designed to interact with the immune system. Some times shots can tip the balance in a cat who is just barely fighting off illness (this is why vets don’t like to vaccinate animals that don’t appear healthy). Finally, certain types of vaccines very rarely can trigger mild illness in animals (or people). This is called reversion to virulence.

Regardless of the cause of your kitten’s cough, there is good news: most respiratory infections in cats and kittens are self limiting. This means that most individuals recover completely with basic nursing care (ensure that the kitten has a comfortable place to rest, ample food and water, and plenty of love). Some infections get out of hand and require treatment with antibiotics. But almost all cats with respiratory infections recover.

I recommend a vet check up for any cat with symptoms of a respiratory infection in order to confirm that medications aren’t necessary. In most cases they are not.

For more information on respiratory infections in cats, visit my website:


Photo: Ashley get ready to let one rip.

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