Many cats experiences an upper respiratory infection (URI) at some time during their lifetime. This term is a group name for several subtypes of infections that can be viral or bacterial. Unlike in people, this “common cold” like experience can happen at any time of the year. Symptoms include but are not limited to nasal discharge, eye discharge, inflammation of the tissue around the eyes, sneezing, coughing, congestion, low appetite, low energy, and mild fever. In most cases this illness doesn’t spread to the lungs to cause pneumonia; but it is possible.
Most patients improve within 1-3 weeks. Most URIs are caused by Herpes or Calicivirus; however, antibiotics can be given to protect from secondary infections. Topical eye medication can be very helpful. Steam or humidifiers can also be beneficial to loosen congestion. Heating food can also encourage cats to eat better. If multiple cats are in the household, isolating the symptomatic felines can help to contain illness. Bedding, food/water bowls, and other pet items should be disinfected. Using good hand sanitation between handling cats is also beneficial.
Young kittens are especially prone to a URI because of their immature immune systems. Felines with chronic illness or immune problems are also susceptible. Certain breeds that have shortened muzzles such as the Persian, or Himalayan are more susceptible as well. Any cat that lives in close quarters with many other cats is also at increased risk due to high exposure and stress. These immuno-compromised patients are more at risk for repeated episodes of illness, can become more seriously ill, and even die. Fatalities are more common in kittens.
For patients that do not recover well, or experience frequent respiratory maladies, advanced diagnostics and other treatments need to be considered. A feline respiratory Polymerase chain reaction test can be performed using a nasal and an eye swab. It is a very sensitive test that can amplify genetic material to look for Herpes, Calicivirus, Bordetella, Influenza, Mycoplasma, and Chlamydophila. Knowing what the underlying cause if the illness can help to treat the problem, or prevent reoccurrences. Additional medications can be prescribed depending on the test results. Herpes is a chronic virus that can reoccur intermittently, especially during times of stress. Other diagnostics such as radiographs or additional blood work may be recommended.
Additional supportive care treatments may also be recommended. L-Lysine is a nutritional supplement that can be used to help prevent the Herpes virus from reproducing. Antiviral medication can be used; but the benefits are questionable. Nebulizers can also be used to administer medications. Sometimes anti-inflammatories can be helpful to ease congestion. Severe cases may be referred to an internal medicine specialist.
There are several things that you can do to help your feline from getting an URI. Keep vaccines current, and start them as a kitten, around 8 weeks of age. Common core vaccinations protect against both Herpes and Calicivirus. Limit exposure to other cats. This can be as simple as keeping your feline indoors; but it also means keeping the number of housemates to a minimum. Also, isolate any sick pets at the first sign of illness. If you introduce a new pet into your household, keep him or her separated for at least 2 weeks. Give supportive care at the earliest sign of a problem, and coordinate with your veterinarian if your cat has frequent infections or difficulty recovering. Identifying the underlying causative agent is also helpful to determine the correct therapy. Your veterinarian is the best source for guidance in dealing with chronic or complicated respiratory problems in your felines.