In addition to dental disease, urinary issues, and obesity, respiratory infections commonly affect cats. Although a person’s cold is similar to a cat’s respiratory infection, this feline condition can linger, and the affected cat can become a permanent carrier, with their signs flaring up in times of stress or illness. Read our Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team’s in-depth guide to feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) to learn the ins and outs of caring for a cat with this condition. In addition, learn how to help prevent disease transmission and future illness.

What causes respiratory infections in cats?

A variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa can lead to a feline URI, with more than a single pathogen being the cause. The most common viruses that cause cats to contract URIs are feline herpesvirus type-1 (i.e., feline viral rhinotracheitis [FVR]) and feline calicivirus (FCV). Viral pathogens account for about 90% of all feline URIs, while the majority of remaining infections are caused by the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophila felis. Fungal and protozoal organisms account for the smallest portion of respiratory infections.

How can my cat contract a respiratory infection?

Respiratory infections are extremely common in crowded facilities, as these pathogens can easily pass among cats. Infections often spread like wildfire through animal shelters, breeding catteries, and feral cat populations, potentially causing severe illness or a lifelong carrier state in affected cats.

The pathogens responsible for respiratory infections are mostly transmitted via direct contact, such as playing, grooming, or sleeping with an infected cat. In addition, if an infected cat sneezes near your cat, your feline friend can inhale aerosolized particles and become ill.

URIs are less commonly transmitted through indirect contact (i.e., exposure to contaminated objects). An infected cat can contaminate food and water bowls, beds, litter boxes, toys, and other items and surfaces, potentially infecting your cat if your whiskered pal comes in contact with these tainted objects. However, most pathogens that cause URIs only survive for a short period in the environment and are easily destroyed by disinfectants.

What are feline respiratory infection signs?

Unless the discharge becomes so thick that it blocks an infected cat’s airway, a cat with a URI will not have difficulty breathing. However, feline respiratory infections can range in severity, causing illness that includes:

  • Ocular and nasal discharge
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Oral ulcers
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia

Feline URI signs may improve on their own, but a cat can appear to have cleared the infection, only to have signs recur during times of stress or illness. Cats infected with FVR usually become lifelong disease carriers, while cats infected with FCV have a lower risk of becoming disease carriers.

How are respiratory infections diagnosed in cats?

Because the majority of feline URIs are caused by two viruses, diagnosis is often based on an affected cat’s signs and health history. If necessary, our Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team takes swabs and blood samples from a cat we suspect has a URI. We send these tests to an outside laboratory to identify the pathogens responsible for the infection. However, diagnosing the exact infection cause is often unnecessary, and our team administers supportive care based on an affected cat’s signs.

What treatment is necessary for feline respiratory infections?

Our team usually treats a cat’s respiratory infection by providing supportive nursing care. However, if a cat’s URI is severe, we may include one or more of the following therapies:

  • Adequate nutrition via a feeding tube
  • Adequate hydration via an intravenous (IV) catheter or subcutaneous fluids
  • Stress reduction
  • Warm, clean environment
  • Nasal decongestants
  • Nebulization
  • Antiviral medications
  • Antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

How can I prevent my cat from contracting respiratory infections?

While you cannot fully protect your cat from all respiratory infection causes, appropriate vaccination can handle the bulk of disease defense. Although the FVR and FCV vaccines are highly effective, they do not totally prevent infection in all cases. However, vaccination greatly reduces the disease’s severity and virus shedding if your cat becomes infected. 

In addition to regular vaccination, protect your cat from disease by practicing good hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water after handling other cats, and change your clothes before interacting with your cat if you’ve been around a sick cat. 

If you have multiple household cats and one falls ill, isolate the ill cat for up to three weeks after they develop URI signs. While quarantine can minimize the potential for disease transmission, a cat infected with FVR may shed the virus and possibly infect your other household cats. To help prevent your cats from transmitting respiratory infections among one another, ensure each household cat is appropriately vaccinated and practice good hygiene such as frequent handwashing.

If one of your household cats has eye or nasal discharge or conjunctivitis, or is sneezing, they may have a URI. Schedule an appointment with our Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team to help your cat recuperate quickly and beat this common feline infection.