Understand the signs of a cat’s upper respiratory infection so you can treat your cat’s cold, including coughing, wheezing, sneezing, and runny nose.

By Brendan Howard
September 03, 2020
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When your cat is sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and has a runny nose, he feels terrible, and you want to help. Luckily, you can. The good news is some cat upper respiratory infections go away on their own, just like humans’ bouts with the common cold. But some conditions can be contagious to other cats. It’s important to know the signs that call for a visit to your veterinarian. 

A virus is often causing a cat upper respiratory infection. Kittens or other cats who’ve been exposed to extra stress or have been housed in shelters or boarding facilities may catch a bug. It’s easy to recognize the symptoms of your cat’s upper respiratory infection and make good care decisions.

Signs of a Cat Upper Respiratory Infection 

Common signs of feline upper respiratory infections include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Clear to colored nasal discharge
  • Swallowing or gagging (a possible sign of a cat’s sore throat)
  • Drooling
  • Fever
  • Eating less or not at all
  • Ulcers in the nose or mouth
  • Squinting, blinking, or rubbing the eyes
  • Lack of energy

Up to 90 percent of all feline upper respiratory tract infections are caused by two viruses: feline herpesvirus type 1 and feline calicivirus. Bacteria that cause similar issues include Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophila felis. Because these symptoms can be indicators of many other illnesses or diseases, if signs persist and your cat’s health worsens, it’s important to visit your vet to rule out more serious conditions.

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A typical cat upper respiratory infection lasts seven to 10 days, and most infections can be managed at home. Upper respiratory infections tend to be like a common cold in humans and are rarely fatal. However, if your cat stops eating, seems dazed or listless, or seems to be having trouble breathing, it’s time to visit the vet. More severe symptoms or ones that won’t go away may be signs of other infections or lung illnesses, such as feline pneumonia. 

“I prefer that people bring in their cats at the first sign of an upper respiratory infection,” says Kathryn Primm, DVM, with Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tenn. “Too many people wait until the cat is really sick and has stopped eating, and then it’s much harder for her to recover.” 

Get the Diagnosis Right

Because most feline upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses such as feline herpesvirus type 1, many veterinarians will diagnose based on the symptoms. Figuring out which virus is causing the problem isn’t as important as caring for your cat as his body fights off the infection. If the condition doesn’t improve, collecting and testing samples from your cat’s nose, throat, and eyes can help your vet pick the right antibiotics for your cat. 

If your cat experiences chronic upper respiratory infections, which is rare, your vet may want to perform chest and head X-rays and other testing. 

Treat Your Cat’s Upper Respiratory Infection

Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics if a bacterial infection is present or if a virus is causing a secondary infection. Remember two major caveats about antibiotics. First, antibiotics don’t kill viruses, only bacteria. Second, always be sure to administer the full round of antibiotics to your cat, and let your vet know if you’re unable to do so.

Your vet may also prescribe eye drops for eye discharge, nose drops for nasal congestion, or a broad-spectrum antibiotic for kittens to protect their young immune systems from other infections while they’re sick with the virus.

You know how miserable a cold can be. To help her recover more quickly, your cat with an upper respiratory infection might appreciate these at-home care strategies: 

Feed Canned Cat Food

If your cat has a sore throat, wet food is less painful to swallow. “Sometimes a cat with a stopped-up nose won’t eat because she can’t smell the food,” Primm says. “Wet food can smell stronger and also has a high water content to help with dehydration.” 

Avoid Over-the-Counter Medicine or Supplements

Unless specifically prescribed by your vet, don’t medicate your cats. The medicines and supplements can be ineffective or even harmful. 

Humidify the Air

You know how you take a hot shower to clear your sinuses? Your cat might appreciate being on the counter or floor the next time you steam up the bathroom. Consider turning on the hot water and giving your cat a steam room treatment a few times a day. (It might even be fun. Cats always want to know what we’re doing in the bathroom anyway.)

Avoid Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar has become a holistic go-to as a food supplement. However, vinegar won’t help your cat fight off upper respiratory infections, and vinegar should never be applied to your cat’s eyes, nose, throat, or skin. 

Prevent Upper Respiratory Infections in Your Cat

For your cat’s well-being and your own peace of mind, you can help prevent upper respiratory infections. These ideas help you keep other cats healthy around a sick cat, as well as strengthen your cat’s immune system to better fight off future infections.

Vaccinate

While vaccinations cannot prevent upper respiratory infections, standard core vaccines for feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus can lessen the severity and length of these infections. Depending on your cat’s risk factors, your vet may also recommend noncore vaccines for bacterial feline chlamydiosis or viral hemorrhagic calicivirus. Booster vaccines every one to three years are necessary. 

Contain the Contagion

Viruses that cause feline upper respiratory infections can incubate for two to 10 days before signs appear. Then cats can be sick for seven to 21 days. During that time, your cat is contagious to other cats, mostly through saliva and eye and nose discharge. Some cats who have recovered can also become carriers for some infections, and mother cats can pass on infections to kittens. Talk to your vet about the best way to manage future infections. 

Aside from other cats in the home, don’t worry about spreading it to everybody else: It’s very rare the infection spread to human beings or dogs (in the case of some bacterial infections).

Consider keeping your sick feline in a quarantine area in your home for up to two weeks. Keep him away from other cats and sources of stress as he adjusts. Use a separate food bowl, water bowl, litter scoop, and litter box. Use diluted household bleach to thoroughly clean any items previously shared. In feeding, cleaning, and caretaking, handle your sick cat last, wash your hands, and change your clothes afterward.

Be Patient

Some viruses that cause upper respiratory infections, like feline herpesvirus type 1, are hard to completely resolve and symptoms can return. Your vet will let you know if this could be a recurring issue. “Communication between cat owner and veterinarian is the most important,” Primm says.   

Being sick is miserable for humans, and the same goes for cats. Your cat can often make a fast and full recovery from upper respiratory infections if you keep an eye out for signs of an upper respiratory infection. Partner with your veterinarian to manage discomfort, treat infections, and prevent future issues, so you can get rid of the sneezing and snot and back to happy cuddles as soon as possible.