You are likely no stranger to viral illnesses such as the common cold and influenza, which cause sneezing, congestion, and other respiratory issues. Like humans, and unlike dogs, cats are uniquely susceptible to many respiratory pathogens—making the kitty cold an extremely common phenomenon that is highly contagious among cats. 

If your cat is sneezy and snotty, you may wonder when to seek veterinary care, what to do at home, and how your pet contracted this condition. Our Central Houston Animal Hospital team responds to your questions about feline respiratory infections.

How do cats contract respiratory infections?

Respiratory infections are spread from cat to cat through close contact or airborne secretions. Shelters, breeding catteries, and multicat homes are prime respiratory infection hotbeds. Kittens and young adults most commonly contract respiratory infections, experiencing a primary infection. Some pathogens become dormant in a cat’s body, and reactivate later in life, producing similar signs or transmitting the infection to other cats. Humans do not transmit these respiratory infections to cats.

Some cats are more likely to contract respiratory infections than others, depending on their immune system status. Susceptible pets include:

  • Kittens and young adults
  • Geriatric cats
  • Cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), or diabetes
  • Stressed cats 

What causes feline respiratory infections?

Viruses cause 80% to 90% of feline respiratory infections, and the rest are usually bacterial. Fungal infections occur occasionally, but these are less common. Typical respiratory pathogens include:

  • Feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1)/Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) — This pathogen is the most common cause of feline respiratory illness—up to 97% of cats are exposed at some point in their lives, and the virus remains dormant after initial infection in 80% of infected cats. FHV-1 reactivates periodically in approximately half of infected cats, enabling disease transmission to other cats. Chronic or recurrent eye problems plague many cats with FHV-1.
  • Feline calicivirus — Between 10% and 90% of cats are infected with calicivirus, which usually causes upper respiratory signs and mouth ulcers, but may spread to the lungs. Rarely, a systemic form can be fatal.
  • Chlamydia — This bacterial infection causes around 20% of respiratory infections, and is usually characterized by conjunctivitis and eye discharge.
  • Other bacteria Bordetella, the bacteria that cause canine kennel cough, can sometimes affect cats in large catteries. Mycoplasma is another common bacteria that can cause a feline respiratory infection. Bacterial infections can be primary, but are usually secondary to a viral infection.
  • Fungus Cryptococcus or Histoplasma can invade the nasal passages and destroy nasal and sinus tissues. These infections are rare—but often serious—and may take months to clear.

What are feline respiratory infection signs?

Feline respiratory infections most often cause upper respiratory signs, but may occasionally involve the lungs. Depending on the causative organism and whether the infection is primary or recurrent, cats’ varying signs may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Nasal and/or eye discharge
  • Squinting  
  • Eye redness
  • Eye ulcers
  • Coughing
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Poor appetite
  • Lethargy

When should I seek veterinary care for my sick cat?

If your cat is sneezing or sniffling, but they are eating, drinking, and behaving normally, you can wait a few days to see if the infection improves. Isolate your ill cat from others in the home as long as this does not cause the cat increased stress, which can prolong the infection and potentially worsen signs. To help break up your cat’s congestion, bring them into the steamy bathroom while you shower, and to help keep their nose and eyes clear, wipe them with a soft, moist cloth. Seek veterinary care as soon as possible if your cat shows any of these signs:

  • Squinting, keeping their eyes closed, or pawing at them
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Thick green or yellow eye or nasal discharge
  • Refusing food
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Mild signs that don’t improve, or worsen after one week

How are cat respiratory infections treated?

Most feline respiratory  infections are viral, and you can treat your feline friend with supportive care at home. Your veterinarian may prescribe oral antibiotics if they suspect bacterial involvement. Antibiotic or antiviral eye drops and ointments are usually prescribed for conjunctivitis and eye ulcers. Your veterinarian may recommend a nasal or eye swab, X-rays, or blood tests to diagnose the infection if the cause is unclear.

Severe feline respiratory infections are rare, but can occur in young kittens or immunocompromised adult cats who may require hospitalization with fluids, nutritional support, breathing treatments, and intravenous (IV) medications to recover. Cats with recurrent infections may benefit from L-lysine or probiotics, but research is ongoing.

Can I help prevent my cat from developing respiratory infections?

The feline distemper combination vaccine offers some protection against the most common feline respiratory pathogens, but does not completely prevent infection. Vaccination can reduce infection severity and reduce disease spread, enabling cats to clear the infection more easily on their own.

Stress reduction is another important feline respiratory infection treatment strategy, as stress from any cause will often result in an FHV-1 flare-up. Stress can arise during illness, household changes, boredom or frustration, or bullying by another household pet. Provide your cat with adequate enrichment, space, and resources to reduce their stress. If you introduce a new cat to your household, keep them quarantined from other pets for 10 days or longer to ensure they have no transmittable infection.

Most cats with mild respiratory signs improve on their own within a few weeks. Contact our Central Houston Animal Hospital team to schedule a visit if your cat shows respiratory signs that do not improve after several days, or to develop a long-term plan to reduce frequent respiratory infection flare-ups.