What is a feline upper respiratory infection in cats?

By: Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

What is a feline upper respiratory infection in cats?

Feline Upper Respiratory Disease is caused by viruses and bacteria.

Feline Upper Respiratory Disease is caused by viruses and bacteria.

  • It’s a highly contagious cat respiratory infection involving sneezing, nasal congestion, eye problems, mouth ulcers and other conditions.
  • This infection is caused by one or more viral or bacterial agents, and is identified by various names: Feline upper respiratory infection (URI), Feline infectious respiratory disease, and Feline upper respiratory disease complex (URD)
  • Viruses that cause the most cases are Feline Herpesvirus Type-1 (feline viral rhinotracheitis or FVR) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
  • Bacteria that causes the most cases are Bordetella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica) and Chlamydophila felis (C. felis).

What are the symptoms of an upper respiratory infection?

The primary symptoms are related to the nose and throat, such as:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Discharges from the nose or eyes; sometimes with pus
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases)

Other related symptoms include:

  • Conjunctivitis (swelling in membranes lining the eyelids)
  • Weight loss (anorexia)
  • Lethargy (low energy)
  • Fever
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Squinting (blepharospasm)

How does a cat get an upper respiratory infection?

  • An infected cat sheds its highly contagious particles in saliva or secretions from the nose or eyes.
  • Susceptible cats get infected through direct contact with another infected cat (in most cases).
  • Some cats get infected through exposure to objects contaminated with infectious secretions. This is less likely because these secretions only survive for a short time in the environment, and can be killed with disinfectants.
  • Cats that have recovered may still carry the infection, and female cats can pass the infection along to their newborn kittens.

How long does a typical feline respiratory infection last in cats?

Once infected, a cat shows symptoms in 2-10 days. If the infection is uncomplicated (no underlying cause or condition), it typically lasts 7-21 days. The cat can be infectious to other cats during this entire period.

  • With FVR, cats are chronic carriers for life, and stress may cause the virus to become reactivated.
  • With calicivirus, about 50% of infected cats will be carriers of disease, even though they’re symptom-free; either for a short time (a few months) or for life.

How does my veterinarian diagnose upper respiratory infection?

  • The cat’s symptoms help provide the first clues to a diagnosis. Your veterinarian may choose to treat a case without looking for a specific causative agent, unless the cat is breeding or is responding poorly to treatment for another condition.
  • Your veterinarian can identify the specific causative virus by collecting samples of cells and discharges from the nose, eyes or back of the throat. If the infection is in the lungs, your vet will examine samples in a transtracheal wash procedure.
  • If a cat has chronic respiratory symptoms, your vet will conduct further testing suc as chest or skull X-rays, blood tests, and culture and sensitivity tests.

How is an upper respiratory infection treated

Home treatment is often recommended for cats with Feline Upper Respiratory Infection

Home treatment is often recommended for cats with Feline Upper Respiratory Infection

  • Home treatment is often recommended, such as an eye medication you can apply, antibiotics given by pill, etc.
  • If your cat is congested, you’ll be advised to take it into a steamy bathroom for 10-15 minutes several times per day.
  • To minimize irritation from discharges, you can wipe them away with a moist tissue.
  • Yummy canned food can be given to help improve your cat’s appetite.

If your cat is dehydrated, depressed, or severely ill, your veterinarian will hospitalize him or her for intravenous fluids and other supportive treatments.

Can feline upper respiratory infection be prevented?

Vaccines help prevent your cat from Feline Upper Respiratory Infection

Yes, often by following these steps:

  • Follow your vet’s recommendations for vaccinates and boosters, which give your cat protection against feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus. While not 100% effective, these vaccines can significantly reduce an infection’s severity.
  • Prevent direct contact with cats by keeping it indoors and avoiding boarding facilities or cat shows, etc.  This will greatly minimize your cat’s chances of picking up an infection.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after petting another cat, to further protect your cat.
  • See Cat Vaccination Schedule for vaccine details.

What about the other cats in my home -’ are they at risk?

Yes. An infected cat is infective to other cats during the incubation period and for up to 3 weeks after developing symptoms.

  • A cat that is a carrier may always be infective to other cats.
  • Unvaccinated cats, kittens and chronically ill cats have a higher risk.
  • Vaccinated adult cats may only develop a mild case of illness that goes away without treatment.
  • If you adopt a new cat, try to keep it isolated from the other cats for about 2 weeks to “clear him” for infection.

Is my family at risk?

Most causes of feline upper respiratory infections are specific to cats only. However…

  • People with immune system disease can become ill if a cat carries Bordetella bronchiseptica.
  • Some people have developed conjunctivitis by living with an infected cat.

These cases are rare, but call your doctor if a family member develops any symptoms of a respiratory infection.

The good news is – your veterinarian can help you prevent feline upper respiratory infections or treat them effectively to avoid further problems.

Talk to your vet if you see any symptoms noted in this information.

Vet Written

Written by:
Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH
© 2014 MyPetED (Lifelearn Inc.). Used and/or modified with permission under license

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