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Cats can catch colds, but not from us humans. Learn to recognize when your cat has a cold, how to help her feel better, and when to get help from your veterinarian.

By Kate Eldredge Basedow, LVT
January 26, 2021
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Illustration of cat with watery eyes and runny nose
Credit: Yeji Kim

You have noticed that your cat is sneezing more often, and today she has a runny nose and her eyes are watery. These are common signs of an upper respiratory infection (URI), or what we refer to in humans as a "cold." There are a variety of pathogens that can cause colds in cats, and many of them are highly contagious.

Thankfully, most kitty colds are self-limiting, or will resolve on their own. But you can enlist the help of your veterinarian to ease your cat's symptoms if she takes a turn for the worse.

How Do Cats Catch Colds?

Most colds in cats are caused by viruses, but they can also be caused by bacterial infections (or your cat can get a secondary bacterial infection on top of her viral illness). Two of the most common culprits are calicivirus and feline herpesvirus or rhinotracheitis.

These pathogens are usually airborne but can also be spread through water. Most cats catch colds by being close to a cat that is already sick. This makes places with lots of cats in close quarters, such as a shelter, boarding kennel, or cattery, prime spots for transmitting colds. Cats living indoors in family homes are not protected from catching colds, however. Your cat can still be exposed to viruses and bacteria from cats who hang out outside your home, or even if you pet a sick cat elsewhere and then come home and interact with your cat.

Poor air quality and ventilation can increase the risk of catching a cold. Cats who have a weakened immune system due to other issues are also at increased risk. Systemic illnesses such as kidney disease, asthma, allergies, or even stress can all put your cat at increased risk. For cats with asthma and allergies, forced air heat in the winter can cause an increase in symptoms and potentially predispose them to getting a URI, especially if the vents are not well-maintained.

Some viruses can also stay in your cat's body long term even after the initial illness has resolved. These viruses remain latent until stress or another illness triggers them to recur later in the cat's life. Feline herpes in particular tends to do this.

Can Cats Get Colds From Humans?

No, cats cannot get colds from humans. The vast majority of viruses are highly species-specific and will not survive in a different host. Some bacterial infections can be transmitted to and from humans and cats, but this is rare.

Cats can get COVID-19 from humans and may show mild symptoms, but this is extremely rare. Cats are in much more danger from feline coronavirus, which can cause the usually fatal disease feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

Can I Catch a Cold From My Cat?

No, you cannot get a cold from your cat. Viruses tend to be highly species-specific and will not survive in a different host.

Can Cats Get Sick From Cold Weather?

Not exactly. Cold weather can weaken your cat's immune system if she does not have access to proper shelter and nutrition, which would then put her at increased risk of contracting a cold. But for a healthy cat who is well cared-for, cold weather does not pose a risk for this illness.

Cat Cold Symptoms

Symptoms of a cold or upper respiratory infection in cats include:

  • Sneezing
  • Congestion or sniffles
  • Runny nose
  • Runny eyes
  • Poor appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Ulcers, particularly on the tongue
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Dehydration
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

Cold symptoms in cats can generally last for one or two weeks.

How to Treat a Cat with a Cold

If your cat is showing signs of a cold but overall is doing okay, you can provide supportive care at home to keep her comfortable.

  • Make sure she has a nice warm spot where she can rest undisturbed. 
  • Clean her face as needed using a damp cloth to remove any crusting around her nose or eyes. You can use artificial tears to flush her eyes if needed.
  • A humidifier can help to soothe irritated airways.
  • Warm her food to increase the odor. Congestion can impact your cat’s sense of smell, making her less interested in her food.

Do not give any cold medicine to your cat without consulting your veterinarian. Cats metabolize medications differently than we do, and many drugs that are safe for humans are toxic to cats. Do not give acetaminophen (Tylenol) to your cat under any circumstance. Aspirin is appropriate in some situations, but is also easy to overdose, so it is crucial to have an accurate dosage from your veterinarian based on your cat's current weight. 

Most kitty colds will resolve on their own with time and supportive care. If your cat is ill enough to require medications for her cold, she will be better served by receiving medications intended for use in cats from your vet.

How to Prevent Your Cat From Getting a Cold

  • Vaccinate your cat according to your veterinarian’s recommendations. The RCP vaccine (also referred to as FVRCP or feline distemper) stimulates immunity against calicivirus and rhinotracheitis (feline herpes). Some of these vaccines also include chlamydia. Cats who have been vaccinated for these diseases can still contract them in some cases but will have milder symptoms and recover more quickly.
  • Keep your cat away from infected cats and cats with an unknown health history. Keep your cat indoors at all times or only allow her outside in an enclosed catio or on a leash and harness.
  • Keep your cats’ living quarters clean and make sure that there is adequate ventilation.
  • Feed a balanced diet to support your cat’s immune system and overall health.

When to Go to the Vet

If your cat is just sneezing with some clear discharge but otherwise seems fine, she does not need to be seen by your veterinarian. 

Causes for concern that may warrant a vet visit include:

  • Difficulty breathing (this is an emergency)
  • Cough
  • Excessive or pus-like discharge from the nose or eyes
  • Not eating for more than a day
  • Ulcer on the tongue or in the mouth
  • Lethargy or depression

If your cat has any of these symptoms or a combination, she should be seen by your veterinarian. Young, old, pregnant, or otherwise immunocompromised cats are more likely to have trouble clearing a cold, so it may be appropriate to seek veterinary care even for mild illness in these cats.

In most cases, your vet will just treat your cat's cold symptoms. It is possible to find out exactly what is causing your cat's illness by sending out an upper respiratory panel test, so that is something the vet may do during the visit.

While there is no cure for most colds, your vet can provide medications to relieve symptoms and resolve secondary bacterial infections. Your vet may prescribe eye ointments to soothe your cat's eyes, antibiotics for suspected bacterial infections, or antiviral medications for severe viral infections.

More severe cases may be treated with fluids to boost hydration, supplemental oxygen, or even a feeding tube to provide nutrition for cats who aren't eating.