Feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) are no fun for anyone, least of all your cat. These infections can be caused by any number of bacteria or viruses your cat comes into contact with often.
How can you tell whether your cat has an upper respiratory infection, and what should you do if you think she has one?
Signs Your Cat Has an Upper Respiratory Infection
The good news is, URIs are one of the most easily-diagnosable issues in cats. You can often tell whether or not your cat has one even before she sees the vet. Some of the symptoms to watch for include:
- Excessive sneezing
- Nasal congestion
- Discharge from the eyes or nose (clear or cloudy)
- Ulcers of the mouth
- Trouble eating
The symptoms of a URI will generally come on gradually and can last anywhere from 7-20 days, even with medication. In general, if it looks and sounds like your cat has a common cold, it’s probably an upper respiratory infection.
Simple, uncomplicated URIs sometimes clear up on their own, but it’s always better to see your vet in case antibiotics are needed. Kittens, senior cats, and cats who are already in poor health should definitely be seen by a veterinarian if an upper respiratory infection is suspected.
How Do Cats Get URIs?
Respiratory infections are transmitted the same way any infection is: through contact. Contact with other infected cats or with contaminated objects are usually the culprit, so it’s important not to take your cat to a place other cats have been if you suspect her immune system is compromised.
Feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline herpesvirus (FHV) are responsible for somewhere around 90% of all upper respiratory infections in cats. Many cats who contract FHV become carriers for life, even once their symptoms have subsided. That means they can transmit the virus to other cats through direct contact for years.
Chlamydia and bordetella are two bacterial infections that can lead to upper respiratory infections in cats as well. Bordetella in cats is exceedingly rare and is usually only found in cats who live in a stressful or overcrowded environment.
Diagnosis and Treatment of a Respiratory Infection
Your vet will probably diagnose your cat’s upper respiratory infection using the symptoms you report and the ones she can observe herself. In cases where medication doesn’t seem to be helping an infection clear, additional diagnostic testing may be required, but those cases are unusual.
There is nothing that can be done to clear a viral infection; viruses must run their course on their own. Bacterial infections usually need to be treated with antibiotics. In either case, your vet might give you options for treatments that can make your cat more comfortable as she heals, such as IV fluids if she’s feverish and dehydrated.
Preventing Feline Respiratory Infections
Did you know there are vaccines available that can help your cat avoid contracting the most common precursors to feline upper respiratory viruses? FHV and FCV vaccines can protect your cat against those infections, and neither vaccine needs to be given annually. (A booster every 2-3 years is usually enough, depending on your cat’s size.) Feline chlamydia vaccines are also available, although they are considered “non-core” and are usually only given to cats who have specific risk factors.
Aside from maintaining your cat’s vaccines, the best way you can protect her is to keep her away from places where infected cats may have been. That means avoiding groomers, boarding facilities, and kitty playdates.