Feline respiratory infections are one of the most common reasons why owners bring their cats to Wales Animal Clinic. Unlike other feline illnesses that can be difficult to identify, cats with respiratory infections display obvious signs, such as sneezing, coughing, and eye and nasal discharge. Left untreated, cats can suffer from respiratory distress, appetite loss, and a cascade of other serious health complications.

Here’s what your veterinarian wants you to know about feline respiratory infections. 

Major feline respiratory infections have several causes

Feline respiratory infections are most often caused by several respiratory viruses, which may sound familiar if your cat receives routine vaccinations. The viruses include:

  • Calicivirus 
  • Feline herpes virus type 1 (i.e., viral rhinotracheitis)

Bacteria can also cause feline respiratory viruses and include:

  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (i.e., the pathogen responsible for kennel cough in dogs) 
  • Chlamydia felis

Finally, in rare cases, a fungus—specifically Cryptococcus neoformans—that can be found in contaminated soil or wildlife droppings may be the cause.

Feline respiratory viruses in pets are prevalent, especially in high density areas

Like human respiratory illnesses, cats can transmit infectious viruses and bacteria via respiratory secretions (i.e., sneezing, coughing, grooming) and close contact. Because of their highly contagious nature, an upper respiratory virus or pathogen will affect most cats during their lifetime. This risk is heightened when cats live in close quarters, such as catteries, boarding facilities, animal shelters, animal control centers, and crowded pet rescues. 

Affected cats can experience mild to life-threatening illness

While some infected cats are asymptomatic (i.e., no visible illness signs) and others develop only mild respiratory signs, others can suffer serious illness and complications. Kittens, young cats, and immunocompromised adult and senior cats are most susceptible to severe sickness and complications.

Asymptomatic cats can become lifelong carriers and will periodically shed the pathogen, which then infects other cats in their environment.

Your cat’s clinical signs will vary based on their diagnosis

Most feline respiratory infections bear the same visible signs, including:

  • Eye discharge
  • Conjunctivitis 
  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Crusting around the nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Squinting
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Lethargy

Additional signs will vary according to the underlying cause (e.g., cats with Calicivirus may have oral ulcers on their gums or face) and their current health status. Severely affected cats may experience difficulty breathing, pneumonia, eye pain or vision loss, and systemic illness. Fortunately, these problems are rare in vaccinated cats.

Vaccines are beneficial but do not provide cats with 100% protection

Vaccines against feline respiratory illnesses have positively impacted condition frequency and severity. However, like many vaccines, they do not eliminate the pathogen from the environment or provide 100% protection against infection. 

Despite this, vaccines are still your cat’s greatest defense against respiratory illness and should be administered according to your Wales Animal Clinic veterinarian’s recommendations. If your vaccinated cat does experience a respiratory infection, their signs will more likely be less severe.

Stress can trigger a respiratory infection relapse in recovered cats

Affected cats usually experience respiratory signs for one to three weeks. Veterinary treatment best speeds the healing process and protects your cat from complications and long-term injury. However, many cats will continue to carry the virus, in a dormant state, for months, years, or in some cases, their entire lifetime—and whenever the cat is stressed, the virus will reactivate and cause clinical signs and illness. Stress triggers will vary for each cat, but the most common include veterinary visits, relocation, recent illness or surgery, and significant household changes.

Early veterinary treatment is more effective and affordable 

If your cat has respiratory illness signs, schedule an appointment at Wales Animal Clinic. Treatment for uncomplicated respiratory conditions may involve antibiotics to address primary or secondary bacterial causes and topical eye or nasal drops to reduce inflammation and infection. Additional home care may include gently cleansing your cat’s nose and eyes to remove debris, or placing your cat in a humid bathroom for 10 minutes several times a day to open congested nasal passages. Our veterinarian may also recommend tempting your cat’s appetite with a strong-smelling wet food.

If your cat refuses to eat or is experiencing complications from prolonged illness, additional testing and hospitalization may be required. Avoid these unfortunate challenges by taking your pet to your veterinarian as soon as respiratory signs appear.

Vaccinations are only one way to prevent feline respiratory infections

Your cat’s feline respiratory infection protection begins with vaccines but doesn’t end there. Additional tips that will minimize your cat’s infection risk include.

  • Isolate newly adopted cats — Visible illness may take between 2 to 10 days to appear after exposure, so keeping cats separated during this time is critical.
  • Separate cats during an outbreak — Sick cats should be isolated as soon as possible to minimize exposure, especially before a formal diagnosis.
  • Research boarding and grooming facilities — Ensure businesses require updated respiratory vaccines. 
  • Prevent contact with unfamiliar cats — An indoor-only lifestyle is the safest and healthiest option for all cats.
  • Support your cat’s health with year-round wellness care — Many simple daily actions boost your cat’s immune system and may reduce common contagious disease severity. Feed your cat a complete and balanced diet, keep them at a healthy weight with regular exercise, and visit Wales Animal Clinic every 6 to 12 months for a complete physical exam.

Cats are infamous for concealing their pain and weakness but, fortunately, they cannot hide their respiratory signs from their owners. If your cat is sniffling, sneezing, and losing interest in food, recognize that these signs are a cry for help and schedule an appointment at Wales Animal Hospital.