Feline upper respiratory infection is a condition that affects a cat's sinuses, throat, and nose. It can be caused by a variety of different bacteria and viruses and is similar to the common cold in humans. However, cats do not "catch colds".
Viruses and bacteria associated with upper respiratory infection ("URI") are contagious and can infect healthy cats that come in direct contact with sick ones. It's important to keep in mind that even cats who do not show clinical signs of the condition may infect others, since the incubation period is the most infectious one.
Frequent coughing, sniffling, sneezing and clear or pus-like discharge from nose or eyes are common symptoms of URI. In many cases, your cat will also be lethargic and may have a fever along with poor appetite. You may also notice congestion along with squinting and rubbing their eyes and sometimes drooling or gagging.
Usually, the infection will last from one to three weeks. The incubation period, in which the cat will be infected but show little clinical signs, lasts two to ten days. It is known to be, in most cases, the period in which the disease is the most contagious. This is common reason why a breeder may tell a new kitten or cat owner to isolate the new kitty from any existing cats in the home. This prevents the new kitty (who may get an upper respiratory infection due to the stress of "re-homing") from infecting the cats already in the home.
It is easy to diagnose URI through symptoms and clinical signs. Viruses and bacteria which commonly cause a URI are:
- Feline Calicivirus ("FCV")
- Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis - "FVR" (also known as "Feline Herpesvirus" or "FHV")
- Bordetella bronchispetica - (the bordetella vaccine is NOT considered to be a CORE vaccine)
- Chlamydophila felis (or chlamydia) - (the chlamydia vaccine is NOT considered to be a CORE vaccine)
Veterinarians will oftentimes not need the specific identification of the causative agent and will treat with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Veterinarians may sometimes recommend finding the cause of an URI for breeding animals or if a cat has an infection that is not responding well to treatment. Some of the most frequently suggested tests in order to determine the cause of an upper respiratory infection are:
- A Complete Blood Count (CBC) to identify possible blood-related conditions
- Chemistry tests which evaluate liver, pancreas and kidney function, determining sugar levels as well
- Electrolyte tests that ensure the cat is not suffering from electrolyte imbalance or dehydration
- Urine tests which screen for urinary tract infection
- Tests for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
The best course of treatment for your cat's upper respiratory infection will be determined by your veterinarian. It may include prescriptions (antibiotics) or even hospitalization, depending on how severe the clinical signs have been. An eye medication (to be applied topically) may be prescribed for those cats with eye discharge (conjunctivitis).
For cats with nasal or airway congestion, the veterinarian may suggest increasing the humidity of your home, which may be performed through the use of a humidifier or by taking your cat to a steamy bathroom a few times a day for periods of fifteen to twenty minutes.
Another common recommendation is to clear your cat's nose and eyes of discharge, by wiping the areas with a moist washcloth, removing the mucus that accumulates throughout the day. Last but not least, because a cat may not want to eat (because they cannot smell due to nasal congestion), a veterinarian may recommend that you offer more appetizing food in order to encourage your cat to eat - canned food often smells much better to cats, which makes it a lot more appealing to them.
You can prevent feline upper respiratory infections to a certain extent with vaccination: You can have your cat protected from its most common causes, which are FCV and FVR (calicivirus and rhinotrcheitis). Even vaccinated cats can get an URI, but usually the disease will be less severe than in unvaccinated cats. Disinfection is another effective method of minimizing exposure to viruses and bacteria, including washing your hands thoroughly before and after petting another cat, will reduce the likelihood of the spread of disease between cats.
Preventing direct contact between infected and non-infected cats may stop them from infecting one another – especially, if you have recently brought home a new cat. Any time a cat goes to a new home, it creates stress for the cat (no matter where the cat came from). In this case, it is important to regularly disinfect shared items such as food bowls, bedding and litter boxes. A common disinfectant already found in most homes is "bleach" – mix 1 part bleach to 7 parts water.
Few owners are aware that stress can contribute to URI outbreaks. Cats who live in multi-cat households, pet stores, humane societies and shelters, catteries or boarding facilities, and rescue groups not only have a higher risk due to contamination, but also due to the higher stress levels they often experience. Cats are, for the most part, solitary creatures, therefore, even a two cat household can be stressful for some cats.
Even after they've recovered from an URI, a cat may still be a carrier (especially in the case of the herpes virus or "rhinotracheitis"). Some cats experience recurrences of an URI when they become stressed.
If you suspect one or more of your cats have an upper respiratory infection, it is very important that you immediately separate them from the healthy cats in your home, disinfect shared items (toys, bedding, food and water dishes), and take those who are suffering the condition to a veterinarian.
Make sure not to self-diagnose your cat. Untreated upper respiratory infection may develop into much more serious complications such as pneumonia or even blindness (in the case of the herpes virus) and chronic breathing difficulties.