• Dr. Jaax & Staff

Upper Respiratory Disease in Cats: When should you worry?

Upper respiratory problems in cats are very common and can be caused by several different underlying issues. Often when a cat is adopted from a shelter or there are any changes in the household that can cause stress, they will develop signs of an upper respiratory infection. However, these symptoms are not always an indicator that your pet needs any medications or other intervention. This article will help to educate you on the different causes of respiratory illness, what we can do to treat and what signs would warrant a visit to the veterinarian for an exam.


The most common cause of upper respiratory illness in cats is a herpesvirus. Much like its counterpart in humans, feline herpesvirus can remain dormant in nerve tissue for many months to years but is never truly cleared from the body. Cats have amazing immune systems that are very effective keeping the body’s viral load down and preventing clinical signs. However, stress plays a very key role in function of the cat’s immune system and can lead to development of a viral “flare-up” under certain conditions. Prevalence of feline herpesvirus is nearly 90% as most cats are exposed to the virus either from their mother or from other cats they have encountered. Many cats can be asymptomatic carriers. This means they can spread the virus without showing any clinical signs themselves.


Often when a new cat is adopted and introduced into the home, they will begin showing signs of upper respiratory illness about 5-7 days after the change in environment. As many of you know, cats are creatures of habit and any change in their routine can be stressful. This includes moving to a new home, addition of a new cat/dog to the home or major changes in the weather. However, anything that is out of the ordinary must be considered a possible stressor in the world of a cat. Since we cannot prevent stress, it is important to know what signs may be seen when a viral flare-up is occurring.


Viral upper respiratory disease usually causes signs associated with the eyes and nasal passages. These frequently include sneezing, nasal discharge, runny eyes and changes in energy level or appetite. If your pet begins showing these signs, it is not necessarily an indicator that antibiotics are needed. Viral diseases usually will resolve on their own if no complicating factors are present. Antibiotics are not helpful to clear viral infection.


If your cat begins to show signs of an upper respiratory issue, here are some guidelines to help determine whether to seek veterinary care immediately:


1. Color/thickness of nasal/eye discharge: if the discharge from your cat’s eyes and nose are clear and somewhat watery, the cause is most likely to be viral. Sneezing can be very frequent and occasionally reverse sneezing is also noted. If the discharge from the nose or eyes becomes discolored (yellow/green) or becomes thick enough to cause significant congestion, this usually indicates a secondary bacterial infection that would warrant further evaluation and treatment. Coughing, open mouth breathing, or obvious increased respiratory effort are ALWAYS signs that your cat should be evaluated as this can indicate pneumonia.


2. Appetite: If your cat is eating and drinking normally, this is a good sign that they are still feeling relatively well. They may have a slightly decreased dietary intake but if they are eating at least half of what they normally would, it is usually reasonable to give them a couple of days to recover on their own. If at any time they quit eating altogether, begin vomiting or having diarrhea or stop drinking water, please seek care from your family veterinarian.


3. Energy Level/Activity: Some decrease in activity is expected when your family feline has an upper respiratory infection. They may sleep a little bit more and not show as much interest in playing or moving around the house. Often, they will lay on warm air vents or find a dark, quiet place to rest. This is considered relatively normal. Much like humans, cats need additional rest to allow their bodies to fight off infection. If lethargy persists beyond the first 2 days of illness, your veterinarian should be contacted. If your cat shows signs of extreme lethargy (not moving much at all, unwilling to go to the litter box), contact your family veterinarian immediately.


4. Duration of clinical signs: Most uncomplicated viral upper respiratory infections are very self-limiting and are expected to last from 3-5 days. Occasionally in younger kittens or older adults, this can extend up to a week. If your pet is not beginning to improve within a 5-day window, even if still eating and drinking, it is best to seek care. This could indicate a more serious illness.


5. Trust your judgement: You know your pet best. If you are concerned, it is never wrong to seek care even if it has only been one day. It is always better to be proactive if you are worried to prevent illness from becoming more severe. Your veterinarian may not prescribe any medications but will be able to ensure there is nothing more sinister occurring.


In homes with multiple cats, respiratory illness can affect several of the pets all at once. This does not indicate that there is anything different to watch for but some cats will be affected more severely than others. Use the above guidelines to determine whether one or all of your fur-kids should be evaluated by your family veterinarian.


If symptoms are mild, here are a few things that can help to mitigate signs of upper respiratory illness that you can pursue at home:


1. Increase humidity: Low environmental humidity can dry out the nasal passages and lead to more severe respiratory symptoms. If you have a humidifier, keep it running in the rooms your cats are most frequently occupying. Another option is to place your cat in a small bathroom with a hot shower running to give a “steam bath”. This will help to open up the airways and break up some congestion. Do not leave your pet in the room for longer than 5-10 minutes.


2. Offer novel food choices: If your pet is used to eating dry food, offering canned food may help to improve their appetite. This will also increase their water intake which will help to support their immune system. Offering different flavors and textures of foods can also help perk up their interest in food. They may be transitioned back to their normal diet once they are feeling better.


3. Allow your pet some privacy: When our pets are sick, our worry often makes us want to check on them frequently to ensure everything is ok. As with many people who are ill, some cats would appreciate a little bit of privacy to get much needed rest. This does not mean you should not look in on your furry friend. If they are staying in one room or spot, bring their food and water near to them so they have access without too much effort. It may also be helpful to move their litterbox into that area. Check on them at least 2-3 times a day if they are not moving about the house. If they seem to want some privacy, it is appropriate to allow them this for a day or two.


4. Do not administer any medication unless directed by your veterinarian: Even if you have medications that were prescribed for another pet who had similar symptoms, it is never a good idea to use them without talking to your vet. Many medications are not appropriate for all cats and unless you have an extremely compliant kitty, giving medications is a stressful experience for both parties involved. Always consult your veterinarian before administering any medications to avoid unnecessary risk.


Upper respiratory illness in cats is a very frustrating and common problem. However, by following the guidelines provided above, we may be able to reduce the severity and duration of their clinical signs. As always, if you have questions about any abnormal behaviors your cat is experiencing, please do not hesitate to reach out to your family veterinarian. They are your best resource for information and reassurance regarding your pet’s health

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