Does your kitty have a cold, or something else? Here are the signs of kennel cough in cats, plus prevention and treatment options.
woman holding a cat with kennel cough in an animal shelter
Credit: Camille Tokerud / Getty

Coughing up a hairball every now and again is common—especially on the carpet versus the hardwood floor. But if your cat is sneezing, coughing, or has nasal discharge after interaction with other cats or dogs, she might have kennel cough. Here's all you need to know about recognizing, treating, and preventing kennel cough in cats.

What is Kennel Cough?

Kennel cough can sometimes refer to a magnitude of infections caused by both viruses and bacteria. In fact, kennel cough in cats is commonly called feline upper respiratory disease or feline upper respiratory infection, not kennel cough, explains Erin Katribe, DVM, MS, Medical Director at Best Friends Animal Society.

Technically speaking, though, kennel cough is an infection caused by one pesky little bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica. This is the same contagious bacteria that causes kennel cough in dogs. The bacteria cause inflammation of the voice box and windpipe, Katribe explains, and is typically as mild as a human head cold or, in rare cases, as severe as pneumonia.

Can Cats Get Kennel Cough?

Because cats don't gather at the park or typically participate in social activities, they are less likely to pass kennel cough to one another like dogs do. But that doesn't mean they can't contract kennel cough, Katribe says.

Kennel cough often spreads through the air in enclosed spaces with poor circulation, like a shelter or a boarding facility. It can also live on surfaces and can be passed from pet to pet via contaminated bowls, toys, and other objects. Kennel cough can also be transmitted by your hands, so it's best to disinfect if you believe you have come into contact with a pet with kennel cough.

Katribe says this shouldn't deter you from adopting a cat from a shelter, or from boarding your cat. "One of the major factors associated with infectious disease in shelter pets is the length of time they spend in the shelter," Katribe explains. "Adopting a dog or cat from the shelter reduces that pet's individual risk of getting sick. If you're not ready to adopt, consider fostering a pet."

If you're wondering if dogs can pass kennel cough to cats, the answer is yes. If you believe your pup has come into contact with kennel cough, it's best to keep him, his toys, and his bowls, isolated from his floofy BFF and other pups.

"While there is a risk of spreading kennel cough to other pets, we can reduce this risk by keeping new pets separate for a short period of time after bringing them home, or when they show symptoms," Katribe explains. Even after symptoms have cleared pets can remain infectious, so it's best to wait for the a-okay from your vet before engaging your pet in social activities.

Signs and Symptoms of Kennel Cough in Cats

A dry, hacking cough is an easy way to identify kennel cough in dogs. Unlike our easy-to-read canine friends, a cat with kennel cough might not have a cough, Katribe says. Instead, cats are likely to demonstrate symptoms associated with broad-spectrum upper respiratory infections. Some signs that your cat might be under the weather with kennel cough include:

  • Conjunctivitis (irritation and inflammation of the tissues around the eye)
  • Eye discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Fever
  • In some cases, a persistent dry cough with a hacking or honking sound

If your cat shows signs of illness, it's best to call your vet and explain her symptoms, Katribe says. While kennel cough is commonly mild and may even run its course like a human cold, other respiratory infections like Bronchopneumonia can be life-threatening.

How to Treat Kennel Cough in Cats

If you suspect your kitty has come down with kennel cough or has interacted with a cat or dog infected with kennel cough, it's best that you contact her vet for treatment options.

The treatment plan for a cat with kennel cough varies with the severity of the infection. Typically, kennel cough is self-limiting says Katribe, meaning it will run its course without medication. Severe cases may require antibiotics, but most cases of kennel cough in cats just require at-home TLC.

Like other upper respiratory infections, your cat could become congested and not be able to smell her favorite food. Choose a super smelly, extra yummy food, or try warming up her favorite meal to increase the smell and stimulate her appetite. For super stuffed-up kitties, provide nasal relief with a humidifier or by placing your cat in a steamy bathroom.

Symptoms of kennel cough will typically clear up in a week or two. With a little extra care and love your kitty will be back to doing what she loves: being a loaf and making biscuits.

Can Kennel Cough Be Prevented in Cats?

While the best way to prevent kennel cough is to prevent exposing your cat to Bordetella bronchiseptica, that's isn't always possible. If you plan to board your cat or have a clowder of social cats from other households together, ask your vet if the Bordetella vaccine is right for your cat. As always, keeping your kitty up to date on all standard vaccines will keep her happy and healthy.