We humans are a the start of our cold and flu season, and owners are asking me whether or not their cats can catch their colds.  The answer is probably not-at least not if you are dealing with a viral infection.  The common cold that we contract is a virus, and most viruses are species specific, which means humans get human viruses and cats get cat viruses.  Unfortunately, cures for human upper respiratory viruses do not exist, so treatment involves relieving symptoms and trying to prevent secondary bacterial infections.  The same holds true for “kitty colds”.  Just like with our human colds, kitty colds are contagious to other cats, and it is common for multiple cats to be affected in a household.

Kitty colds caused by viruses usually cause sneezing and a clear discharge from the nose and/or eyes.  A more serious upper respiratory infection (a combination of a virus and a bacterial infection) in a cat would be characterized by fever, enlarged lymph nodes, yellow to green discharge from the eyes and nose, and loss of appetite.  Antibiotics would be needed if these additional symptoms were present, and they would fight the bacterial component of the infection.

Owners of indoor cats are surprised that their cats are able to contract upper respiratory infections without contact with other cats.  Most of the viruses that cause these infections are airborne, and some are also transmitted through water.  Since it is impossible to filter all outside air and water from entering a home, indoor kitties are still at risk.

The basic cat booster vaccine provides protection against some common respiratory infectious agents.  The vaccine is either a 3-way containing antigens to Feline rhinotracheitis, calici, and panleukopenia viruses, or a 4-way that also includes Chlamydia.  Rhinotracheitis is a feline herpes virus that can cause sneezing, conjunctivitis, and sinus congestion.  Calici virus can cause sneezing blisters in the mouth, fever, and congestion.  Panleukopenia is not typically a respiratory infection.  Chlamydia is a type of bacteria that can cause conjunctivitis and other respiratory inflammation.  Even consistently vaccinated cats are susceptible to these infections because the vaccines do not prevent infection; they only lessen the severity of clinical signs.

The fact that one of the most common feline viruses that causes upper respiratory infections in cats is a herpes virus, makes dealing with kitty colds very frustrating.  Herpes viruses tend to be intermittently active in carrier cats and this means that the associated respiratory signs can be recurrent.  It is similar to humans that carry the herpes virus that causes cold sores on the mouth.  Flare-ups can occur multiple times.

What should you do if you suspect that your cat has an upper respiratory infection?  The first thing is to assess your kitty’s ability to eat, drink, and breathe adequately.  If the discharges are clear and the cat is eating and drinking relatively normally, then wiping the eyes and nose clear may be all that is needed.  If your cat is depressed, not eating, or is having difficulty breathing, then he should probably be examined by your veterinarian.  Cats that cannot smell may not eat well.  You can try to help open your kitty’s congested nose by placing him in a steamy bathroom or using a vaporizer.  Do not give your cat any human over the counter cold medications.  Most of these products contain aspirin or acetaminophen that could be deadly to your cat.

If you have a cat that is sick with an upper respiratory infection, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, antihistamines, nasal sprays, interferon (a drug that stimulates the body’s own cells to fight infection), or even the amino acid L-lysine (another compound that works against herpes).  Cats that get dehydrated may need to be supplemented with fluids.  Those that are not eating may need to be force fed.  If conjunctivitis is present, there will be eye medication.

Cats with upper respiratory infections sneeze a lot, and many owners want to do something to help prevent sneezing.  Unfortunately, there is not anything that you can give your cat to specifically stop it from sneezing.  Since cats cannot blow their noses, they can build up a lot of mucous in their noses and sinuses, which can trigger sneezing.  Sometimes veterinarians will use antihistamines to help relieve symptoms of congestion and sneezing in cats, but I have not had much luck with these products helping patients.  Pediatric saline nasal sprays can be safely used to help with nasal congestion.

The most important thing to remember if your cat has an upper respiratory infection is to be patient.  Do not have unrealistic expectations on how long you think it should take for your cat to be 100%.  If you think about the last time that you had a cold, it is likely that you had sneezing and congestion that lasted anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.  Even though you felt better after a couple of days, you were probably blowing your nose for quite a while longer.  The same can be true for cats, so try to keep your kitty as comfortable as possible and seek veterinary advice if signs progress.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic