When Cats Catch a Cold: Feline Upper Respiratory Disease


Sneezing, runny nose, runny eyes, lack of appetite, fever – most humans know these symptoms only too well. If you see them in your cat, chances are, your cat has contracted an upper respiratory infection very similar to a cold.

What causes cat colds?

Cold like symptoms can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection, although a viral infection is usually more common. The two most common viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in cats are calici and herpes. Bacterial infections an be caused by mycoplasma pneumoniae, bordatella bronchiseptica, and chlamydia psittaci bacteria.

Calici virus

The feline calicivirus, or FCV, is a challenging virus that can be very painful for affected cats. It causes symptoms similar to that of a common cold. This infection quickly spreads among cats housed together, which is why it is frequently seen in animal shelters. Once a cat is infected with FCV, the virus may be carried in his or her body for life. A carrier cat may show no symptoms at all, or mild symptoms during times of stress. Calici symptoms can range from mild cold symptoms to painful ulcers inside the mouth, nose and throat area.

Herpes virus

The feline herpes virus is not the same strain as the human one, and it is not contagious to people, or vice versa. Herpes virus in cats causes primarily cold like symptoms, but it can also cause serious eye infections. In extreme cases, these infections can cause young, unvaccinated kittens to lose their eyes. 80-90% of cats have this virus in their systems. Cats who have a healthy immune system will usually not show symptoms unless their immune system becomes challenged. Cats who carry the virus are only contagious when they’re showing symptoms.

How to treat a cat cold

Treatment will depend on the severity of the cold, and on the cause. One of the most important things will be to help your cat keep her nasal passages clear.

You know what having a cold feels like for you. Now imagine having someone tie your hands behind your back while you have a cold – that’s what a cold feels like to a cat.

In mild cases, home care with good nursing care (wiping away discharges from the nose and eyes, and keeping the cat warm) may be sufficient. You can use a humidifier set on high to help congested cats breathe.More serious cases will require veterinary treatment. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections. Medicated eye ointments or antiviral preparations can prevent further eye damage or control of an existing eye infection. Cats with severe colds may need to be hospitalized for IV fluid administration.

A lack of appetite is common in cats with colds since they can’t smell their food. Try enticing your cat with a food that has a strong aroma. Never let a cat go without food for more than 24-48 hours, as this can result in a life threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis.

Are cat colds contagious?

Upper respiratory infections are highly contagious among cats. In multicat households, it is not unusual for the entire cat population to become sick. Cats cannot pass their colds to humans, or vice versa, although there have been a few isolated cases where cats were infected by the human flu virus via one of their guardians.

How to prevent cat colds

The commonly administered FVRCP vaccine offers protection against the feline herpes and calici viruses, and is considered a core vaccine by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Current vaccinations have about 40 different strains of the virus in them, which provides pretty good protection against many strains. However, since the virus is constantly mutating, the vaccine does not guarantee protection. Additionally, vaccinations carry risks. Discuss an individualized vaccine protocol for your cat with your veterinarian.

In most cases, cat cold symptoms will improve within 7 to 10 days. Unless there is a complicating secondary bacterial infection, and with proper nutritional support, the prognosis for cats with colds is good.

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