Nearly all pet cats are exposed to respiratory viruses or bacteria that eventually lead to an infection. Some cats get sick once or twice, while others have multiple infections. Feline respiratory infections resemble a human cold, with sneezing, runny eyes, and nasal discharge the most common signs. Most of these respiratory infections resolve on their own, but some may require additional treatment, such as antibiotics.

The Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic team wants pet owners to know what to expect with respiratory infections, which cats are susceptible, how to manage the infections at home, and when to seek veterinary care. Here is what you need to know.

What causes respiratory infections in cats?

Viruses, bacteria, or both cause most respiratory infections in cats. These organisms can spread from cat to cat but do not affect dogs or humans. When an infection occurs, the microorganisms responsible replicate in the body and cause inflammation in the nasal passages, eyes, and possibly the airways and lungs. The most common culprits include:

  • Herpesvirus—Nearly all cats are exposed to this virus, which causes an initial upper respiratory infection and then becomes dormant in the body, ready to flare up at any time. Herpesvirus is the most common cause of upper respiratory infections in cats and can lead to chronic eye problems.
  • Calicivirus—This infection is highly contagious but affects fewer cats than herpesvirus. In addition to affecting the upper respiratory tract, calicivirus can cause mouth ulcers, lung infections, or, rarely, systemic illness and organ failure.
  • Bacteria—Bacterial infections can occur independently or be secondary to a viral illness. Common upper respiratory bacteria include Bordetella, Mycoplasma, and Chlamydophyla.

Less commonly, a fungus can invade the nasal passages, leading to upper respiratory problems. Fungal infections can spread to the lungs and throughout the body and can be life-threatening. Aggressive anti-fungal medications and other treatments are required in these rare cases.

How do cats catch respiratory infections?

Respiratory infections can spread through particles in the air, contaminated objects, or close contact. The organisms spread quickly in dense cat populations in shelters, catteries, or multi-cat homes. If you adopt a cat from a shelter, chances are high they already have been infected with several of the organisms described above.

Stress and immune health play a significant role in which cats are most susceptible to clinical illness. Young kittens, seniors, cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and those with endocrine disorders have reduced immune function. They can pick up infections more easily from other cats or have a herpesvirus flare-up. Stress from moving, the addition of new pets, or competition for resources at home have the same effect.

What are respiratory infection signs in cats?

Respiratory infection signs vary depending on the organism involved, your cat’s health status, and whether the infection is occurring for the first time or is a viral flare-up. Signs may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Conjunctivitis (i.e., red, swollen, watery eyes)
  • Eye ulcers
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite

Can I treat my cat’s respiratory infection at home?

If your cat has minor respiratory signs but continues to act and eat normally, you can manage the problem at home for a few days. Most infections are viral and should resolve in one to two weeks without treatment. You can help your cat recover by following these tips:

  • Reduce stress — Ensure all cats in your home have unencumbered access to resources, including food, water, clean litter, resting areas, perches, and hiding places, and are not competing with each other or other pets. Avoid moving furniture, traveling, or having guests when your cat isn’t feeling well.
  • Encourage your cat to eat — Offer food with strong aromas to stimulate your cat’s appetite. Offering canned or fresh foods also will help keep your cat hydrated.
  • Create a steam room — Place your cat in the bathroom while you shower or run water without the fan to create a steam room. This will help break up congestion and thin mucus.
  • Keep vaccinations up to date — The feline distemper combination vaccine (i.e., FVRCP) protects against herpesvirus and calicivirus. While the vaccine does not entirely prevent infection, it helps your cat’s immune system fight the viruses more efficiently and may reduce future flare-ups.

When does my cat need to see the veterinarian?

If your cat’s minor respiratory signs do not resolve within a week, contact our team to schedule a visit. Call us to have your cat examined as soon as possible or visit a veterinary urgent care or emergency facility if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Persistent squinting
  • Copious, thick, green or yellow discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Wheezing, coughing, open-mouthed breathing, or increased respiratory effort
  • Appetite loss
  • Extreme lethargy

Expect to deal with occasional respiratory infections if you own a cat in the same way you’d expect a few colds each year in a child. Reducing stress and exposure to other cats are the best ways to prevent infections, but the Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic team is here when the inevitable occurs. Contact us to schedule a visit if your cat is sick or to discuss preventive measures and wellness care to keep your feline friend as healthy as possible.