upper respiratory infection

Upper-Respiratory Infections in Cats

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Yes, it’s true. Our feline friends can get colds, too. As is the case for humans, bacteria or viruses are to blame.

The bacteria or viruses that most commonly cause upper respiratory infections (URIs) in cats are:

  • Feline herpesvirus type-1 (FHV-1), also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR).

  • Feline calicvirus (FVC)

  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica)

  • Chlamydophilia felis (C. felis)

  • Mycoplasma spp. (bacteria) or a feline respiratory, such as FIV or FeLV, also contribute to issues with upper respiratory infections.

Bacteria and viruses are very contagious and are present in the saliva and discharge produced by their eyes and nose. Healthy cats can get infected when they come into direct contact with a sick cat. Cats with retroviruses are especially vulnerable to the contagions, both through direct contact and indirect contact with contaminated objects.

Unfortunately, even seemingly recovered cats can still be carriers of the aforementioned diseases and unknowingly pass it on to other cats. Mother cats can also act as carriers, passing infections on to their litters.

Cats that have contracted FVR are considered “chronic carriers”, meaning they will carry the virus for life and can become sick again in times of high stress such as moving, new housemates, babies, etc. About half of the cats infected with FVC will remain infected as carriers, sometimes for a few months after the symptoms cease, and in rare occasions, for life.

Symptoms of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Some of the common symptoms of an upper respiratory infection in cats are:

  • sniffling

  • sneezing

  • clear to pus-like discharge from the eyes and/or the nose

  • coughing

  • lethargy

How long can Feline Upper Respiratory Infections last?

An infection typically lasts for 7 to 21 days. There is an incubation period, which is the time period from point of infection to when clinical signs become apparent, which spans 2 to 10 days. It is thought the incubation time is the time of highest contagion.

Diagnosing cats with a Feline Upper Respiratory Infection

The clinical signs and symptoms are typically apparent enough to make a diagnosis. However, diagnostic tests are required to determine the cause of the infection. Some of the tests your veterinarian may recommend are:

  • A complete blood count (CBC) to rule out blood-related conditions.

  • Chemistry tests to ensure your cat isn’t dehydrated or suffering from an electrolyte imbalance.

  • Urine tests to screen for urinary tract infection and other disease, and to evaluate the ability of the kidneys to concentrate urine.

  • Tests for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

Your veterinarian may want to run additional tests for cats with chronic upper respiratory infections, such as radiographs to evaluate the lungs and sinuses, cultures of cells, and microscopic evaluation of discharge.

Treatment for Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Your veterinarian will determine the best treatment for your cat, which may include specific prescriptions and possible hospitalization, depending on the severity of the situation.

For more mild infections, other suggests of treatment may include:

  • Increase humidity within your house (such as a humidifier or short trips to a steamy bathroom several times a day)

  • Offer food that is appetizing to your cat, such as canned food, to encourage eating.

  • Clear the eyes and nose of discharge by wiping the eyes and nose with a moistened washcloth that can be properly washed and disinfected.

Prevention of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Vaccination can protect your cat from the most common causes of an upper respiratory infection (FVR and FVC).

Disinfection is another highly effective way of minimizing environmental exposure. In high to minimal risk situations, it is advisable to regularly disinfect shared items such as litter boxes, food bowls, and bedding.

Preventing direct contact between cats is the best way to ultimately avoid infection. If you are bringing home a new cat that has come from a breeder or a shelter, it is important to have them visit the veterinarian before introducing them to any cats you currently have in the home. Keep in mind that your new cat may not yet show symptoms, so limited exposure and diligence in cleaning and sanitizing is critical in the first 1 to 2 weeks after adoption.

How are humans affected by a Feline Upper Respiratory Infection?

Humans are at a low risk of contracting the diseases responsible for causing upper respiratory infections in felines. Most of these infectious agents are species-specific. Viruses such as B. bronchiseptica and conjunctivitis associated with C. felis can be a possible risk for people with lowered immunity. To prevent the chance of infection, wash your hands frequently.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.


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Related: We have more information under our cat health category.