Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats
Cats sneeze for many reasons. If sneezing is the only symptom your cat displays -- i.e., no discharge from eyes or nose, good appetite, no change in behavior or activity level -- then it is probably of no concern. However, when ocular or nasal discharge is seen, the cat may have a cold or upper respiratory infection.
An upper respiratory infection in a cat is more like influenza in people than like a cold because it can be very difficult to get rid of without medical help, especially in the young, the old, and those with chronic health problems. In some cases, it can prove fatal.
What to Watch For
- Sneezing, especially occurring as "spasms" over the course of a few hours, or frequently over several days.
- Discharge from the eyes or nose; this may be watery, bloody, or thick and colored clear, yellow or green.
- Coughing or excessive swallowing (if there is drainage into the back of the mouth and throat).
- Lethargy (with or without hiding)
- Loss of appetite
- Raised third eyelid
As with people, most colds start as a viral infection, followed by a bacterial infection.
- Keep the eyes and nose free of discharge using cotton moistened with warm water.
- Warm canned cat food or meat flavored baby food to encourage your cat to eat.
- Provide plenty of fresh water for drinking.
- Any kitten, no matter how active, should be seen by a veterinarian at the first sign of a cold. However, if your cat refuses to eat or even move, it is urgent you bring the cat to a veterinarian immediately.
Usually a thorough physical exam is sufficient to diagnose an upper respiratory infection. If your cat has become anorectic (refuses to eat), blood tests and possibly X-rays may be taken to see if there are complications developing.
Using a vaporizer that produces warm moist air will help the nasal passages and sinuses to drain. To treat the bacterial component of the cold, your cat will require antibiotics. A viral infection, meanwhile, will usually be dealt with by the cat’s own immune system.
If your cat is not eating or is dehydrated, your cat will be hospitalized and put on intravenous fluids until he is eating on his own. B vitamins and appetite stimulants may also be used to help his appetite to return. If neither of these methods help with your cat's appetite, he may need to be force fed for a while.
Polyps and foreign objects like grass awns can cause symptoms similar to a cold, although the symptoms often start on one side and then spread to the other. Fungal infections such as aspergillosis can also cause similar symptoms.
Living and Management
Once your cat is discharged from the hospital, continue the antibiotics and vaporizer therapy as directed by your veterinarian. Also keep his face clean of discharge.
Making certain that your cat eats is just as important as complying with the antibiotic regimen. Cats that go without eating for even a short period are at risk for developing hepatic lipidosis, a condition involving the liver that is very difficult to reverse.
If the symptoms resolve only to return a few weeks later, chances are the cat does not have a cold. The symptoms may be related to one of the other possible causes listed above. Additional diagnostic work will be needed.
If your cat’s cold is due to a herpes virus infection (feline rhinotracheitis), he may have occasional recurrences of the symptoms. As with people, you cannot get rid of a herpes virus; all you can do is treat the symptoms when they appear.
There are many viruses that can cause colds in cats. Two of these viruses can be very hard on your cat, even without the bacterial component: feline herpes virus, as already discussed, and feline calicivirus. Fortunately, there are vaccines available for these viruses. Be sure your cat receives the initial series of injections followed by regular boosters, as recommended by your veterinarian.