Cats commonly are affected by upper respiratory infections (URIs) that can range from mild to severe and may require hospitalization for pets who do not receive treatment. Most infections are viral or bacterial and spread rapidly, and can result in widespread illness, especially in multi-cat housing facilities.

Similar to human respiratory infections, prompt care can ensure fast relief and prevent serious complications such as pneumonia. Learn how to minimize your cat’s infection risk, recognize common signs, and support their successful recovery with Caring Hands Animal Hospital’s answers to frequently asked questions. 

Question: What are the most common upper respiratory infection causes in cats?

Answer: Most feline URIs are caused by viruses, including:

  • Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) or feline herpesvirus type-1
  • Feline calicivirus (FCV)

Some virus outbreaks contain more than one pathogen, which results in a mixed infection of multiple viruses or bacteria. Infectious bacteria commonly associated with feline respiratory infections include:

  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (i.e., kennel cough in dogs)
  • Chlamydophila felis

Q: My cat was vaccinated against FVR and FCV, so why are they sick?

A: Your cat’s core vaccinations protect against the most common feline respiratory viruses. However, vaccinations are not always 100% effective, and vaccinated cats may still succumb to respiratory infection, generally with milder signs than unvaccinated cats. 

Additionally, recovered cats become lifelong FVR carriers and those exposed to the virus early in life can relapse during adulthood. 

Q: How are feline upper respiratory infections transmitted from cat to cat?

A: Cats can be exposed to URI microorganisms through several methods:

  • Rapid infection spread via aerosolized particles from sneezing and coughing, similar to human respiratory illnesses
  • Exposure through direct contact with infected cats (e.g., grooming or play)
  • Exposure through the use of contaminated shared objects (e.g., food dishes, toys, bedding)

Feline URIs can emerge as outbreaks in high-volume areas, such as animal shelters, boarding facilities, and catteries.  

Q: What are infection signs in cats?

A: Despite one or more microorganisms causing URIs, most infected felines share similar clinical signs that may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge
  • Conjunctivitis (i.e., pink eye)
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Ulcerations around the mouth 
  • Noisy or congested breathing
  • Increased respiratory effort
  • Fever

Many feline illnesses remain hidden, but URI-affected cats are visibly sick and may struggle to eat, because they can’t smell their food. These hard-to-miss signs may be unpleasant, but they help owners recognize the need for veterinary attention.

Q: Should I isolate my cat until they can see the veterinarian?

A: Separating a visibly sick cat from other cats is always a good idea, especially if the household includes young or elderly cats. Relocate the affected cat to a separate room until their appointment at Caring Hands Animal Hospital. Wash all shared cat supplies (e.g., dishes, toys, litter boxes, accessories) in warm soapy water and wipe them down with a pet-safe disinfectant.

Cats can transmit URI pathogens to one another, but humans and other pet species are considered safe. Still, as a general rule, always wash your hands after pet interactions or handling pet items.

Q: How are upper respiratory infections diagnosed in cats?

A: Because most URIs are self-limiting and respond well to similar treatments, diagnostic testing to determine your cat’s exact viral or bacterial cause is generally unnecessary. Your veterinarian will diagnose your cat based on their clinical signs (e.g., congestion, eye and nasal discharge) and their overall physical exam, which helps rule out secondary conditions or complications (e.g., pneumonia) that would significantly alter the treatment plan and your cat’s prognosis.

Q: What causes a carrier cat to relapse?

A: Cat owners are often alarmed to find their previously healthy and vaccinated cat suddenly struggling with respiratory illness. However, sudden flares are common and frequently preceded by stressful events, such as:

  • Moving or rehoming
  • Illness, pain, or hospitalization
  • A new person or pet in the home
  • Multi-cat conflict or bullying
  • Abrupt routine changes
  • Veterinary visits
  • Boarding 

Stress also is known to affect many chronic feline illnesses, so cat owners should always be vigilant about potential stressors and monitor their cat’s responses to unavoidable changes, such as relocating.

Q: How are upper respiratory infections treated in cats?

A: In otherwise healthy cats, most URIs are self-limiting, meaning that your cat’s clinical signs will subside in roughly 7 to 14 days. However, if signs are severe or negatively affecting your cat’s breathing or appetite, veterinary treatment is recommended to speed healing, provide relief, and reduce complication risks.

Standard treatment options will vary by cat but may include:

  • Administering oral antibiotics
  • Applying prescription eye or nasal drops
  • Cleaning the eyes, face, and nasal passages with a warm, wet cloth
  • Opening congested airways with humidification (e.g., taking your cat into a steamy bathroom for 20 to 30 minutes several times per day)
  • Stimulating the appetite with fragrant food (e.g., wet cat food)

Protect your cat from upper respiratory infections by staying up-to-date on their routine vaccinations at Caring Hands Animal Hospital, minimizing their contact with stray or unfamiliar cats, and minimizing stress at home. If your cat is experiencing URI signs or needs veterinary care, contact our knowledgeable and dedicated team.