upper respiratory infections in cats

upper respiratory infections in cats
Posted by Dr. Kelly Diehl on Mar 24 2016

If you’ve ever had a kitten or gone to a shelter, you’ve probably seen the sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes typical of upper respiratory tract infections in cats. 

What causes upper respiratory infections?

Two viruses cause most upper respiratory infections in cats: feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1) and feline calicivirus (FCV). They’re highly contagious, spreading rapidly from cat to cat, and are especially problematic where lots of cats are housed together, like shelters or long-term sanctuaries.

Almost all cats are exposed to FHV-1 during their lifetime, and kittens often get infected by their mothers shortly after birth. Since FHV-1 is a herpesvirus, cats become life-long carriers after they’re exposed.

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Stress can reactivate this dormant feline herpesvirus, causing upper respiratory signs to reappear. Stress-induced shedding helps explain why shelter cats are prone to upper respiratory infections.

Like FHV-1, FCV is highly contagious. But unlike FHV-1, FCV is not linked to stress. Some cats are healthy carriers of FCV, where they don’t show any signs but can still spread the disease. This virus also has been linked to some chronic diseases in cats.

What are the signs of upper respiratory infections?

Think of the signs of a human common cold, and you’ll be able to spot an upper respiratory infection in cats. Sneezing, watery eyes and watery nasal discharge are common.

Others include loss of appetite, lethargy, oral ulcers and fever. Upper respiratory infections can lead to bacterial infections, which can be very serious. Coughing and eye and nose discharge are signs of more serious infections.

Sometimes the viruses responsible for infections never completely clear, so cats can have periodic relapses throughout their lives.

How are upper respiratory infections treated?

The good news is that many cats recover from upper respiratory infections without treatment. Severely affected cats may need supportive care with fluids, nutritional support, and antibiotics for secondary infections.

Other treatments include eye drops, antiviral drugs, and nebulization (moist steam treatments). One of the most important therapies is stress reduction, especially in cats housed in groups, such as rescue facilities and shelters.

Your vet can guide you on the best treatment and prevention strategies for your cat.

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