What You Should Know About Feline Upper Airway Infections

Sneezing? Coughing? Your Kitty May Need More Than Chicken Soup!

Cats, especially kittens, often get upper airway (respiratory) infections. If your cat shows any signs of respiratory illness, such as sneezing, wheezing, ‘gummy’ eyes or a runny nose, make an appointment to have him or her evaluated right away. Depending on their cause, upper airway infections can quickly become serious, especially in kittens. In adult cats, untreated infections can lead to other (secondary) infections or damage delicate sinuses, resulting in chronic problems.

Most feline upper airway infections are caused by viruses, but some cats develop secondary bacterial infections. Signs of upper respiratory disease can also be linked to other serious problems, like allergies, dental disease, cancer, or the presence of a foreign object in the nose or back of the mouth.

What Causes Feline Upper Airway Infections?

Approximately 90% of all upper airway infections are caused by two common viruses: feline herpesvirus-1 and feline calicivirus. Feline herpesvirus is related to the virus that causes cold sores and chicken pox in people: however people cannot get sick from the feline virus. Upper airway infections in cats can also be causes by fungi or bacteria. It is common for cats to be co-infected – infected with more than one agent (e.g., a virus and a bacterium) at the same time – which can make treatment and recovery longer and more difficult.

How Are These Viruses Spread?

Feline upper airway infections are spread in the same way as the common cold: a healthy cat comes in contact with an object that has been used by an infected cat – for example, a shared food bowl or toy. Frequently disinfecting shared items can help reduce transmission risk. Feline calicivirus can also be spread when a healthy cat uses the same litterbox as an infected cat. And, just like the common cold, your hands can play a role in spreading viruses, so if you touch a sick cat, wash your hands before touching another cat!

Even after they are no longer sick, many cats that have been infected with feline herpesvirus and calicivirus can transmit these viruses to other cats. Therefore, seek professional veterinary advice before introducing a new cat with an unknown vaccination history into your house, or before placing your cat in an unfamiliar setting with other cats, such as a boarding facility.

How Can I Keep My Cat Healthy?

Cats that are kept indoors are at lower risk of contracting upper airway diseases. Cats that are allowed outside; have recently been in a shelter, boarding facility or cattery; or live in a multicat household are at higher risk of contracting these diseases. Because of their immature immune systems, kittens are also at higher risk.

Vaccines are available to help prevent or reduce the severity of the most common infections. Many vaccines may not be 100% effective in preventing a disease, but they do help limit how sick your cat becomes if it is infected.

What Do I Do If My Cat Is Already Sick?

Diagnosing the exact cause of an upper airway infection can be difficult because many cats are co-infected. When you bring your cat to the veterinary office, it helps if you can remember what vaccinations your cat has had, when your cat may have been exposed to an infected cat, and when you cat began to show signs of being sick. Some laboratory tests may be necessary to help with the diagnosis.

As in people, very few drugs can control viral infections, so treatment typically consists of keeping your cat warm, comfortable, and eating and drinking properly. Many sick cats lose their appetite because nasal congestion affects their sense of smell, so these cats may need to be tempted with baby food or another delicious treat. Discharge from the nose and eyes should be gently cleared away if the cat will allow it, and lesions in the mouth or eyes should be treated. You may be given a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic to help combat any secondary bacterial infections. Dehydration can be a problem in seriously ill cats, so fluid therapy may be called for in some cases.

Other Information

What Are The Signs?

Signs of upper airway infection in cats vary depending on what is causing them.

The most common signs are:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery of mucous discharge from the eyes or mouth
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite or weights

Less common signs are:

  • Hoarse ‘voice’
  • Change in facial shape
  • Ulcers in the mouth or eyes
Raising The Red Flag

Signs of upper airway disease can be caused by underlying conditions, such as nasal tumors or dental disease. If your cats illness lasts an unusually long time, or is accompanied by unusual pain, facial deformity, significant weight loss, or some other odd sign, additional diagnostic tests may be necessary to rule out other problems.

Vaccination Guidelines

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP; catvets.com) considers feline herpesvirus-1 and feline calicivirus vaccines as core, meaning that they should be given to virtually every cat. They are usually given in a single combination vaccine. AAFP recommendations include vaccinating kittens as young as 6 weeks, accompanies by a series of booster shots. The number of boosters depends on the kittens age when the first shot is given.

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