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October 31, 2022 |0 min read

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection: Symptoms & Treatments

Written by

Sharilyn Vera

Cats are a lot like us in that they can get sick from time to time. When your cat starts sneezing, coughing, and looking generally unwell, you may think it to be caused by common allergies, but your cat may have a feline upper respiratory infection.

One of the most common cat diseases involves upper respiratory infection. Feline upper respiratory infection (URI) is a condition that can affect cats of all ages, though it is most commonly seen in kittens and young cats. It is a highly contagious disease caused by various viruses and bacteria, including the calicivirus, herpesvirus, and Bordetella bronchiseptica.

Learn all about feline upper respiratory infection symptoms, how it spreads, prevention methods, and treatment options

Feline upper respiratory infection – Definition, Causes, and Diagnosis

A feline upper respiratory infection (URI) is a viral or bacterial infection that affects a cat's nose, throat, and sinuses.

Causes of Upper Respiratory Infection

There are three leading causes of upper respiratory infections in cats: bacterial, viral, and fungal.

Viral Infections

Viruses that cause feline upper respiratory infection in cats include caliciviruses (including enteritis), coronaviruses (such as feline rabies), herpesviruses, parvoviruses, and retroviruses.

Bacterial infections include Mycoplasmosis - an infectious disease caused by bacteria that infect the cat's respiratory tract; Bordetella bronchiseptica - a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes serious illness in cats; Bordetella disease – another highly contagious bordetella virus infection with symptoms similar to those seen in feline panleukopenia; 

Chlamydophila felis – this is another highly contagious chlamydophila bacteria that cause chronic persistent coughing in young kittens.

Viral diseases such as rhinotracheitis often accompany upper respiratory tract infections caused by eosinophilic pustule syndrome (EPS) or atopy dermatitis from contact allergens causing allergic reactions on the skin surface.

This can lead to redness around the eyes & nose area, then into blisters under the chin area along the sides spine area and towards the tail base where it forms scabs.

These come off easily, leaving behind pus-filled sores/ulcers. Once healed, these ulcers will leave scars behind.

Bacterial infections

Bacterial infections include Mycoplasmosis - an infectious disease caused by bacteria that infect the cat's respiratory tract; Bordetella bronchiseptica - a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes serious illness in cats; Bordetella disease – another highly contagious bordetella virus infection with symptoms similar to those seen in feline panleukopenia;

Chlamydophila felis – this is another highly contagious chlamydophila bacteria that cause chronic persistent coughing in young kittens.

Fungal infections

Fungal infections are often caused by the fungus Aspergillosis, which can cause respiratory disease in kittens. This is particularly common in cats with immune system problems such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

The signs of a fungal infection are often similar to those of other infections and may include coughing, sneezing, and nasal discharge. If you think your cat has a fungal infection, it's important to take it to the vet as soon as possible.

Antifungal medication is available from pet shops or online. However, if this doesn't work, your vet may prescribe stronger medicines such as fluconazole or ketoconazole, which are only available on prescription.

Common URI causes

The most common cause of URIs in cats is the feline herpesvirus, which is estimated to infect up to 80% of all cats.

Other viruses that can cause URIs include the feline calicivirus, and chlamydia felis.

Bordetella bronchiseptica is the most common bacteria that can cause an upper respiratory infection in cats. Cats with Bordetella may experience similar symptoms to those with a viral URI, including runny nose, watery eyes, and fever. However, they may also develop a hacking cough.

URIs are highly contagious and can be passed from one cat to another through direct contact, sharing food and water bowls, or even being close to an infected cat. Cats that are stressed or have a weakened immune system are more susceptible to contracting a URI.

Feline upper respiratory infection diagnosis

URIs are diagnosed based on a combination of clinical signs and laboratory testing of nasal swabs or blood samples.

Others include:

  • Urine tests
  • Lung X-rays (Lung ultrasound)
  • Liver function tests

Symptoms of a feline upper respiratory infection
The symptoms of a URI vary depending on the underlying cause but may include a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, fever, loss of appetite, and lethargy. In severe cases, a cat may develop pneumonia which can be life-threatening.

Cat Upper Respiratory Infection Treatment

There is no cure for viral URIs, but there are many ways to manage the symptoms and help your cat feel more comfortable. Treatment options include:

  • Anti-viral medications: These can help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms but will not cure the infection.
  • Antibiotics: These are typically only prescribed if your cat has a bacterial infection in addition to the virus. Antibiotics will not work against viruses.
  • Decongestants: These can help to reduce congestion and make breathing easier.
  • Cough suppressants: These can help to reduce coughing and make your cat more comfortable.
  • Fluids: It's important to make sure your cat stays hydrated, so offer them plenty of water or low-sodium chicken broth. You may also need to give them subcutaneous fluids if they are not drinking enough on their own.
  • Nutritional support: A high-quality diet is important for all cats, but it's especially important for those with a weakened immune system. Ask your vet about a diet that will provide your cat with the nutrients they need to fight off infection.

If your cat has a viral URI, there is a chance they will become a carrier of the virus and be able to spread it to other cats, even if they are not showing any symptoms themselves. For this reason, it's important to keep them isolated from other cats until they have fully recovered.

Prevention of a feline upper respiratory infection

Here are a few things you can do to prevent your cat from contracting a feline upper respiratory infection.

First, make sure your cat is up-to-date on all their essential vaccinations. It's also important to keep them away from sick cats with upper respiratory infections and other illnesses.

It's important to keep your cat's environment clean – sweep and vacuum regularly and wash their bedding often.

If you think your cat may have a URI, take them to the vet for an examination and treatment as soon as possible. With prompt care, most cats recover quickly and without complication.

You can also try treating your cat's upper respiratory infection with immune system enhancers, which increase their body's ability to fight off germs. These medications include:

  • L-lysine (found in food)
  • Vitamin C tablets or capsules
  • Thyroid supplements

Can I give my cat anything for an upper respiratory infection?

Several over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications are available to treat feline upper respiratory infections (URI). Still, it's important to consult your veterinarian before giving your cat any medication, as some drugs may not be safe for felines.

Additionally, many OTC medications are not effective against the viruses that cause URIs in cats. If you do give your cat medication for a URI, make sure to follow the instructions on the label carefully.


Do cat upper respiratory infections go away on their own?

While some types of URIs can go away on their own, most will require treatment from a veterinarian. The most common form of URI is caused by a virus, and unfortunately, viruses cannot be cured.

However, the symptoms can be managed to make your cat more comfortable. Bacterial URIs can often be cured with antibiotics.

How long do upper respiratory infections last in cats?

Most upper respiratory infections in cats will resolve on their own within 1-2 weeks. However, some may last for several weeks or longer. Advanced cases of feline upper respiratory infection could take up to 3 weeks for them to recover completely.

If your cat is showing signs of an upper respiratory infection, it is best to consult with your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Conclusion

Feline upper respiratory infections are common in cats and can be caused by various viruses and bacteria. The most important thing you can do as a pet owner is to be aware of the symptoms so that you can get your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

With prompt treatment, most cats will recover quickly without lasting effects. Be sure to stay up to date on all cat related topics at PrettyLitter.


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Sources:

  1. "Feline Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)." Austin, Texas. 2022. https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Animal_Services/Foster_Care_Manual/Feline_Upper_Respiratory_Infection.pdf
  2. "Acute Respiratory Infections Of The Dog And Cat - WSAVA 2015 Congress - VIN".Vin.Com, 2022, https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?id=7259336&pid=14365
  3. "Aspergillosis".Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2022, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/aspergillosis
  4. "Feline Panleukopenia".American Veterinary Medical Association, 2022, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/feline-panleukopenia
  5. "Feline Upper Respiratory Infection | PAWS".PAWS, 2022, https://www.paws.org/resources/feline-upper-respiratory-infection/
  6. "Feline Upper Respiratory Infections".VMBS News, 2022, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/feline-upper-respiratory-infections/
  7. "Respiratory Infections".Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2022, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/respiratory-infections





Written by

Sharilyn Vera

Sharilyn is a proud cat owner, long time storyteller and researcher. Her work spans beloved podcasts, television shows, media outlets, and independent documentaries. She likes to strike a balance between education and comedy, which you can hopefully tell when you read her articles!

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