Cat Colds: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Teresa Kho-Pelfrey, DVM
By Teresa Kho-Pelfrey, DVM. Reviewed by Rhiannon Koehler, DVM on May 30, 2024
A cat sleeps on a couch.

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In This Article

Summary

Do Cats Get Colds?

Cats don’t get the same types of colds that humans get, but they do have upper respiratory diseases that are sometimes called “colds”.

A “cat cold” is a general term that refers to a group of symptoms in cats that are like the common cold in humans.

Cold symptoms in cats are usually caused by a virus.

Cat Cold Symptoms

Cats with colds may have symptoms including:

For many cats, these symptoms will go away on their own in about seven to 10 days.

However, some cats may experience complications, such as a secondary bacterial infection or pneumonia.

A secondary bacterial infection can cause yellow-green discharge from the eyes or nose, which may lead to congestion severe enough that your cat can’t smell or taste, affecting their appetite.

Cats with pneumonia will cough and have difficulty breathing that may require hospitalization.

How Do Cats Get Colds?

The most common causes of cat colds are viral infections. It’s estimated that about 90% are caused by the feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus.

Feline Herpesvirus

Feline herpesvirus (or feline rhinotracheitis virus) is extremely contagious. It is commonly seen in situations where multiple cats are housed together (such as a rescue or shelter).

Cats infected with herpesvirus will carry it for the rest of their lives.

Many cats will experience dormant periods where the virus is not actively reproducing. They may look perfectly healthy during this time.

However, after stressful events that suppress the immune system, such as being boarded or groomed, the virus may become active and cause symptoms including sneezing or runny eyes for a few days.  

Feline Calicivirus

Cats that are infected with feline calicivirus may show very similar signs to cats that are infected with feline herpesvirus. Like herpesvirus, calicivirus is highly contagious.

The most common causes of cat colds are viral infections. It’s estimated that about 90% are caused by the feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus.

When compared with feline herpesvirus, cats with calicivirus are also more likely to develop oral symptoms, such as ulcers (sores) in the mouth.

Fortunately, both viral infections are specific to cats and are not contagious to people.

Additionally, there are vaccines for both viruses, and these viruses are considered core vaccines for kittens and adult cats.

Although the vaccine may not prevent infection completely, it can help to reduce symptoms and prevent serious disease.

How Vets Diagnose Cat Colds

If your cat is showing symptoms of a viral infection, your cat’s veterinarian will perform a thorough examination.

It’s important that you give your vet a thorough medical history about your cat, including the onset and nature of your cat’s symptoms.

Based on their exam findings, your veterinarian may recommend routine diagnostic tests to check for possible complications of a cold.

These tests may include blood work and chest X-rays to check for pneumonia or other conditions like asthma or a fungal infection.

For cats with recurrent, severe upper respiratory signs, an upper respiratory PCR panel may be recommended by your cat’s veterinarian to figure out what virus or bacteria is causing her symptoms.

This test is performed by collecting secretions from the eyes and nose with swabs and submitting them to a laboratory, where they are analyzed for pathogens that cause respiratory disease.

For cats with mild symptoms, a PCR test isn’t usually performed.

How to Treat a Cat With a Cold

Mild cases of cat colds typically don’t require any medical treatment, but there are some things that you can do at home to help your cat feel better while she is recovering.

These include:

  • Keep your cat with you in the bathroom while you take a hot shower. The humidity can help relieve nasal congestion.

  • If the air in your home is dry (during winter for example), use a humidifier to help relieve airway irritation.

  • Reduce your cat’s stress during recovery. This may mean keeping her confined to a smaller, quiet room with all of her essentials close by (litter box, food, water, and warm bed) and using pheromone products.

Severe cases, or cases where a secondary bacterial infection is also present, often require antibiotics.

Typically, this will be in the form of topical and/or oral medication that is administered at home.

Antiviral medications are sometimes used in cats suspected of having herpesvirus, especially if the signs are severe or they have other immunocompromising conditions like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

If your cat is sick enough that she is having trouble breathing or she's refusing to eat, she may require hospitalization for one to two days until she is stable enough to continue treatment at home.

Recovery and Management of Cat Colds

Most healthy cats can make a full recovery from a cat cold without medical intervention in about seven to 10 days.

If your cat experiences more severe symptoms and medical treatment is required, the recovery period may last longer and be more difficult.

Cat Colds FAQs

Can humans catch cat colds?

No, the main causes of feline upper respiratory infections are not transmissible to humans.

Is there over the counter cold medicine for cats?

You should not use over the counter medications for cats without speaking with your veterinarian.


Teresa Kho-Pelfrey, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Teresa Kho-Pelfrey, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Teresa Kho-Pelfrey graduated from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2015 and completed her clinical year at Purdue...


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