Can Cats Catch Colds?
By Amanda Jondle, DVM February 21, 2019
Just like people, cats can catch a cold. Commonly referred to as an upper respiratory infection, or URI, these colds are most often caused by viruses such as the Herpesvirus or Calicivirus. Cats usually catch these viruses when they are kittens and may remain carriers of the virus for life. If the cat has a resilient immune system, they may never develop a problem. But if their immune system is weak, they could come down with the symptoms of a URI. Bacteria can also cause URIs, often as a secondary infection. Some common bacterial culprits that can infect cats include Mycoplasma, Bordetella, and Chlamydia.
How Do You Tell If Your Cat Has A Cold?
The most common symptoms of upper respiratory infections include cold-like signs such as sneezing, a runny nose, and red, watery eyes. Usually the infection is self-limiting and will resolve on its own in a matter of a few days. Other times the symptoms last longer and are more severe, requiring a trip to your veterinarian.
When Should I Bring My Cat To The Vet?
If your cat experiences any of the following symptoms, or if any symptom persists for more than a few days, then it is time to bring your cat to the vet:
- Excessive sneezing
- Excessive coughing
- Conjunctivitis (inflammation and redness around the eyes)
- Excessive eye discharge (may be white or green in color)
- Ulcers on the eyes or in the mouth
- Excessive nasal discharge (may be crusty or snotty)
- Lethargy (sleepiness and decreased energy level)
- Inappetence and dehydration (no interest in food or water)
- Open-mouth breathing
If you find yourself with your cat at the vet, you can expect that he or she will get a history about what has been going on at home, perform a complete physical exam, take your cat’s temperature, and maybe even perform some diagnostic tests to see what the most likely cause of the infection is.
Depending on how sick your kitty is, your veterinarian may recommend one, or several, of the following treatments.
- A course of antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections
- Antiviral medications to clear the current virus or viruses
- Eye medications for corneal ulcers, conjunctivitis, or eye infections
- Anti-inflammatory medications for swelling of the sinuses or nasal passages
- Nasal decongestant drops to clear congestion
- Appetite stimulants to help stimulate interest in food
- Subcutaneous or intravenous fluids to keep your cat hydrated
- Supplements to support the immune system
- In severe cases, your cat may need to be hospitalized for fluid therapy, nutritional support, medications, and observation
If your cat doesn’t get better with the initial treatment, your veterinarian may look into other causes of the upper respiratory symptoms. These causes although rare, could include nasal or oral polyps or foreign bodies, tooth root abscesses, allergies, fungal infections, or nasal or oral cancers.
Is My Cat’s Cold Contagious?
Your cat cannot catch a cold or upper respiratory infection from you or your family members, but they could catch the infection from another cat. URIs can be extremely contagious between cats. They are common in multi-cat environments such as shelters, catteries, pet stores, and multi-cat households.
The most common way that an upper respiratory infection is spread is through aerosolization. When a cat sneezes or coughs, the contagious viral or bacterial particles are released into the air and can spread quite far. Other cats could breathe in these particles and catch the infection. Infection can also be transmitted by direct contact of nasal discharge, eye discharge, or saliva when cats groom themselves or other cats. Infection might also spread through fomites, inanimate objects such as food and water bowls, brushes, bedding, and toys. It is important to keep your cat’s items clean, especially if they are sick.
While any cat can get an upper respiratory infection, very young or very old cats tend to be the most affected. Kittens can’t fight off infections easily because they don’t yet have a fully developed immune system. Older cats have a weaker immune system due to age and are more likely to have other diseases. This makes them more vulnerable to catching an infection. Cats whose bodies are working to heal wounds or injuries, are also more likely to get sick with an upper respiratory infection because their immune system is already overwhelmed. If your cat has been infected with the Feline Leukemia Virus or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV, similar to HIV in humans), they also have weakened immune systems and are more prone to secondary upper respiratory infections.
If your cat is stressed, this can bring on the signs of a URI. Similar to being sick, if your kitty is stressed, this can lower the immune system tolerance, making him or her more vulnerable to catching a virus or bacteria.
In rare cases, dogs with kennel cough can spread an infection to your cat. Bordetella is the most common bacteria involved in kennel cough and can be contagious to both dogs and cats.
What Can I Do For My Cat At Home?
The most important thing you can do if you notice signs of an upper respiratory infection in your cat is to visit the vet. Your vet will help by starting the treatment needed to get your kitty feeling back to their normal happy self in no time!
If your cat’s signs are mild, you should first make sure they have fresh food and water. Cats that are congested have a hard time smelling their food and often won’t eat. Heating up some canned food or offering small amounts of fresh plain chicken or tuna could entice your kitty’s appetite. Fresh, clean water is also important to keep your cat from getting dehydrated.
It is important to minimize stress as much as possible. Your cat should have a clean, quiet place to rest and be able to get away from the hustle and bustle of kids, visitors, and other pets in the house.
If you have more than one cat, separate the sick kitty from the healthy ones. Provide a separate food bowl, water bowl, and litter box to help prevent the spread of disease to the healthy cats.
You can offer your cat an immune support supplement such as Lysine, under the recommendation of your vet. This is an amino acid supplement that can help boost your cat’s immune system, helping to clear the infection, and prevent further illness.
Probiotics are healthy gut bacteria that you can feed your cat to help support their immune system and prevent illness.
If your cat suffers from nasal or eye discharge, clean it off gently with warm water and a wash cloth as often as needed.
Never give your cat over-the-counter medication without consulting your veterinarian.
Last but not least, give your furry feline friend plenty of love and cuddles and keep a close eye on them to watch for any worsening symptoms.
In order to prevent infections and illness, cats should receive combination vaccines as part of their regular wellness care. Vaccination against Feline Herpesvirus, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia (distemper virus) are important aspects of keeping your cat healthy and protected from illness. If the cat was infected with one of these viruses as a kitten and appears healthy, then vaccination will help decrease the severity of symptoms and the spread of the disease.
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