Cat owners are likely familiar with their feline friends’ respiratory infections, because the majority of the feline population seems to have suffered from watery eyes and a runny nose at some point. While feline respiratory infections are often chalked up to being a “cat cold,” they can develop into more serious illness under certain conditions. Know how to help your cat recover when they are “fe-line” under the weather by learning more about feline respiratory infections.

Feline respiratory infection signs

Almost all feline respiratory infections are caused by two virusesfeline herpesvirus type 1 and feline calicivirus. Some bacteria and fungi also cause the infections, but these pathogens are much less common in standard housing situations. 

Differentiating respiratory infection causes based on clinical signs alone is virtually impossible. However, diagnosis of the exact pathogen is generally not needed, as treatment for most causes is similar.

If your cat develops a respiratory infection, you may notice:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Nasal and ocular discharge
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Squinting
  • Oral ulcers
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

Severe cases can result in anorexia, dehydration, and pneumonia, so closely monitor your cat who is showing respiratory infection signs.

At-home nursing care for cats with respiratory infections

Management of your cat’s respiratory infection is similar to battling a cold. Your cat should be kept warm, fed, hydrated, and comfortable. Tips include:

  • Keep your cat’s eyes and nose clean — Nasal and ocular discharge can be excessive and make your cat incredibly uncomfortable, especially when dried and crusted over. Gently wipe your cat’s face with a warm, wet cloth to remove secretions.
  • Heat up canned food — Warm your cat’s favorite canned food for a few seconds in the microwave to boost the odor and add extra appeal.
  • Encourage water intake — Encourage your cat to stay hydrated by purchasing a drinking fountain or adding some low-sodium chicken broth to their water bowl.
  • Place your cat in a humid bathroom — Warm steam can help soothe irritated airway passages and ease nasal congestion, so keep your cat in the bathroom while you shower. Running a humidifier in the room where your cat spends most of their time will also help.

Veterinary care for cats with respiratory infections

Since the majority of feline respiratory infections are caused by viruses, only cats who develop serious illness or secondary bacterial infections need veterinary care. Antibiotics are necessary for bacterial infections, while other therapies may include:

  • Nutritional support — Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell when eating, so a stuffy nose can turn them off their food. Additionally, oral ulcers—typically caused by feline calicivirus—are exceptionally painful and your cat may stop eating and drinking. Nutritional and hydration support can be provided via a feeding tube and intravenous (IV) fluids, if necessary.
  • Nebulization — Cats with respiratory infections commonly have nasal discharge and congestion, which can make eating and drinking difficult. Saline nebulization and mucolytic drugs can break up mucus and help your cat breathe, eat, and drink more easily.
  • Pain management — Cats with oral ulcers benefit from pain control, typically a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). 
  • Eye medication — Ointments or drops can help manage conjunctivitis or treat an ocular bacterial infection.

Prevention tactics for feline respiratory infections

Regular vaccination is key to preventing infectious respiratory illnesses in cats, but no vaccine is 100% effective. However, your cat may contract a respiratory infection, but the illness will be less severe than if they were unvaccinated. 

Additional tactics to help prevent feline respiratory infections spreading include:

  • Practicing good hygiene — Good hygiene is essential for disease prevention, since pathogens can be transmitted through contact with contaminated people and items. Always wash your hands after handling cats who do not live with you before petting your own, and change your clothes if you’ve contacted a sick cat. 
  • Separating new cats — When you bring a new cat into your home, separate your current and new pets for a couple of weeks, which will not only give your pets time to become acclimated to the change in family structure but also prevent disease transmission. Respiratory infections can take several days or longer to show clinical signs, but affected cats can transmit infections before they appear ill.
  • Isolating sick cats — Respiratory infections are easily transferred between cats, as bacterial and viral pathogens can be spread by sneezing, grooming, close contact, and contaminated surfaces and objects (e.g., bedding, bowls, toys). Isolate sick cats and use good hygiene to prevent infecting other cats.
  • Reducing stress — Stressed cats have a weakened immune system and are prone to illness, especially because certain respiratory infections can flare up during stressful situations. Minimize your cat’s stress by providing varied environmental enrichment, boosting litter box attraction, and staying on top of preventive care.

Cats with respiratory infections can become seriously ill, so protect your feline friend from infectious diseases by keeping their respiratory vaccines current and seeking veterinary treatment should they fall sick. Give our Providence Vet team a call to schedule your cat’s appointment.