If your cat is sneezing or has watery eyes, they may have a respiratory infection, which is a common condition in cats that can cause serious issues. Our Urgent Pet Care Omaha team provides important information about feline respiratory infections, so you will know how these conditions are managed and the steps you can take to reduce your cat’s risk.

Feline respiratory infection causes

Feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) are infections that attack the cat’s nose, sinuses, mouth, throat, and in some cases, their eyes. Numerous pathogens can cause these infections, including:

  • Virus — Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV-1), also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis, and feline calicivirus (FVC) are responsible for approximately 90% of feline respiratory infections.
  • Bacteria — Bacterial pathogens, such as Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophila felis, can also cause feline respiratory infections.
  • Fungi — Fungal pathogens, such as Blastomyces dermatitidis and Histoplasma capsulatum, can cause feline respiratory infections, although they are rare in cats.

Feline respiratory infection transmission

Viral and bacterial pathogens are easily transmitted among cats through the following methods:

  • Direct contact — Cats can get infected through direct contact with an infected cat’s saliva, ocular discharge, or nasal secretions.
  • Inhalation — Inhaling infected sneeze droplets can lead to infection.
  • Fomites — Fomites are objects (e.g., food and water bowls, litter boxes, and hands) that are contaminated with the infectious agent. This can result in infection when the object is shared by an infected cat and uninfected cat, or when someone handles a cat after touching an infected cat.

Fungal feline respiratory infections are acquired when a cat inhales a fungal spore from the environment.

Feline respiratory infection signs

Cats affected by a feline respiratory infection can exhibit many signs, including:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge or crusting
  • Nasal or sinus congestion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decreased appetite or inappetence
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Ocular drainage
  • Swelling or redness of the membranes surrounding the eye
  • Squinting
  • Coughing
  • Oral or nasal ulcerations
  • Lymph node swelling

Feline URIs typically are not considered a veterinary emergency, but severe cases can cause inappetence for several days and dehydration, which can lead to serious complications, especially in kittens and senior cats.

Feline respiratory infection risk factors

Any cat can get a respiratory infection, but certain factors can increase your cat’s risk, such as:

  • Age — A kitten’s immune system isn’t fully developed and a senior cat’s immune system may decline as they age, making these cats more susceptible to respiratory infections.
  • Other diseases — Cats affected by underlying diseases, such as feline leukemia (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), are significantly more susceptible to respiratory infections, because their immune system is compromised.
  • Breed — Brachycephalic breeds, such as Persians, Himalayans, and Burmese, have shortened facial bones and can find clearing their URI difficult.
  • Stress — Stress decreases a cat’s immune system’s ability to fight infection. FHV-1 can go into a dormant state, but signs can reappear in a stressed cat. 

Feline respiratory infection diagnosis

Feline respiratory infection is typically diagnosed based on your cat’s signs, but tests we may recommend include:

  • Blood work — Your veterinarian may recommend a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemistry profile to assess your cat’s overall health and determine their immune response.
  • FeLV or FIV testing — Your veterinarian may want to test your cat for FeLV or FIV to ensure they don’t have a concurrent, complicating condition that will interfere with treatment.
  • X-rays — If your cat is having trouble breathing or the infection spreads to their lungs, your veterinarian may need to take X-rays.
  • Nasal swab — If your cat’s infection doesn’t respond to treatment, your veterinarian may take a nasal swab to identify the organism.

Feline respiratory infection treatment

Treatment for feline respiratory infections is usually supportive and may include:

  • Steam therapy — Keeping your cat in the bathroom while you shower can help moisten their nasal passages.
  • Eye treatments — If your cat’s eyes are affected, your veterinarian may prescribe eye ointments or drops.
  • Nutritional support — Your veterinarian may prescribe a special diet to encourage your cat to eat or place a feeding tube if they refuse to eat, to ensure they receive adequate nutrition.
  • Antibiotics — If your cat’s infection is bacterial, antibiotics may be necessary.

Feline respiratory infection prevention

Not every feline respiratory infection can be prevented, because some kittens are infected by their mother. However, you can decrease your cat’s risk by:

  • Vaccinating your cat — Ensure your cat receives the appropriate vaccines that your veterinarian recommends.
  • Reducing exposure — Keep your cat inside and don’t let them interact with cats who have an unknown vaccine history.
  • Isolating your new cat — Keep a newly adopted cat isolated for three to four weeks and monitor them for feline respiratory infection signs. 

If your cat is having difficulty breathing or exhibiting other signs that indicate a veterinary emergency, contact our Urgent Pet Care Omaha team, so we can provide the care they need.