Sneezing, runny nose, runny eyes, lack of appetite, fever – most humans know these symptoms only too well. If you see them in your cat, chances are, your cat has contracted an upper respiratory infection very similar to a cold.

What causes cat colds?

Cold like symptoms can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection, although a viral infection is usually more common. The two most common viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in cats are calici and herpes. Bacterial infections an be caused by mycoplasma pneumoniae, bordatella bronchiseptica, and chlamydia psittaci bacteria.

Calici virus

The feline calicivirus, or FCV, is a challenging virus that can be very painful for affected cats. It causes symptoms similar to that of a common cold. This infection quickly spreads among cats housed together, which is why it is frequently seen in animal shelters. Once a cat is infected with FCV, the virus may be carried in his or her body for life. A carrier cat may show no symptoms at all, or mild symptoms during times of stress. Calici symptoms can range from mild cold symptoms to painful ulcers inside the mouth, nose and throat area.

Herpes virus

The feline herpes virus is not the same strain as the human one, and it is not contagious to people, or vice versa. Herpes virus in cats causes primarily cold like symptoms, but it can also cause serious eye infections. In extreme cases, these infections can cause young, unvaccinated kittens to lose their eyes. 80-90% of cats have this virus in their systems. Cats who have a healthy immune system will usually not show symptoms unless their immune system becomes challenged. Cats who carry the virus are only contagious when they’re showing symptoms.

How to treat a cat cold

Treatment will depend on the severity of the cold, and on the cause. One of the most important things will be to help your cat keep her nasal passages clear.

You know what having a cold feels like for you. Now imagine having someone tie your hands behind your back while you have a cold – that’s what a cold feels like to a cat.

In mild cases, home care with good nursing care (wiping away discharges from the nose and eyes, and keeping the cat warm) may be sufficient. You can use a humidifier set on high to help congested cats breathe.More serious cases will require veterinary treatment. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections. Medicated eye ointments or antiviral preparations can prevent further eye damage or control of an existing eye infection. Cats with severe colds may need to be hospitalized for IV fluid administration.

A lack of appetite is common in cats with colds since they can’t smell their food. Try enticing your cat with a food that has a strong aroma. Never let a cat go without food for more than 24-48 hours, as this can result in a life threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis.

Are cat colds contagious?

Upper respiratory infections are highly contagious among cats. In multicat households, it is not unusual for the entire cat population to become sick. Cats cannot pass their colds to humans, or vice versa, although there have been a few isolated cases where cats were infected by the human flu virus via one of their guardians.

How to prevent cat colds

The commonly administered FVRCP vaccine offers protection against the feline herpes and calici viruses, and is considered a core vaccine by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Current vaccinations have about 40 different strains of the virus in them, which provides pretty good protection against many strains. However, since the virus is constantly mutating, the vaccine does not guarantee protection. Additionally, vaccinations carry risks. Discuss an individualized vaccine protocol for your cat with your veterinarian.

In most cases, cat cold symptoms will improve within 7 to 10 days. Unless there is a complicating secondary bacterial infection, and with proper nutritional support, the prognosis for cats with colds is good.

26 Comments on When Cats Catch a Cold: Feline Upper Respiratory Disease

  1. Our Jackie kitty who has been battling lymphoma for about a year and kidney disease since 2012 has come down with an upper respiratory infection late last week. Took her to the vet on Friday, they gave us antibiotics to give her twice daily, otherwise just monitoring her closely, doing what we can to keep her nose clean, taking her in the bathroom for shower steam and have a humidifier set up near where she likes to lay. Her appetite is fortunately continuing to be decent with her favorite food being Stella and Chewy’s freeze dried chicken although she will eat some of the other grain free canned food we feed the cats. So far none of the other four is sick.

  2. @ Ingrid:

    Thank you for the link to the article warning about L-Lysine. We have used it a lot, a few years ago. But I cannot say that it had much effect. Will have to ask my husband (who is already in bed and sleeping) whether he noticed any positive effect when we used it.

  3. Correction: There is a wrong modifier in my comment. The sentence “Orphan Annie (our favorite cat who survived brain cancer spread to the bones with Essiac tea, in 2013)” is misleading and should read “Orphan Annie (our favorite cat, who, in 2013, due to being treated with Essiac tea, survived brain cancer that had spread to the bones).

    I also forgot to tell that during this quarantine, no one, except our vet (who was vaccinated for rabies), was allowed to enter our house, but my husband and I were allowed to go out.

  4. Cat colds are caused by the same factors that cause eliminative crises in humans. That is, the accumulation of waste. Bacteria are blamed because they are always on site to clean up the waste. Viruses are similarly co-existent but are not living like bacteria, they are dead cellular debris. A cold is nothing more than emergency elimination. The body uses it when internal waste accumulates to a point where function will otherwise be impaired. This affliction happens very often in kittens when they are weaned from the best food in the world (mother’s milk) to the worst (commercial cat food). Their little bodies quickly become overwhelmed with indigestible matter and since they are young, they still retain the original vigor that is necessary to produce eliminative symptoms. The membranes of the upper respiratory tract are enlisted to produce mucus, which is used to transport waste out. This explains all the outflow.

    When my kitten was 10 weeks old, I boarded him in a private home where the woman there was also fostering a litter of kittens afflicted with “colds”. She told me she was planning to keep them away from my kitten but knowing my cat needed all the socialization he could get at that important developmental stage, I requested that she allow him to freely mingle with them. My kitten played with the sick kittens for 5 days, and never got sick. He’s also never been vaccinated.

    We need to rethink the information we are getting from industries which profit from pet sickness. The information that we need in order to keep our animals healthy for life is not forthcoming from them. That information is available, however. It’s difficult to imagine an entire new understanding of health and disease existing with the medical establishment and all its devotees being completely oblivious, but it’s true. It makes sense, it makes nobody any money, and it empowers all those who follow it. It’s called NATURE. The philosophy that most intimately incorporates nature into its understanding of disease is called Natural Hygiene.

    • Nora, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but for the sake of everyone who reads your comment, I feel compelled to say that what you are presenting as facts is just simply wrong. It sounds to me like the misconception of very extreme unscientific views.

      A healthy lifestyle alone WILL NOT fully protect either animals or humans from illness. Microbiology is a lot more complicated than one might think. I wish it were as easy as you make it sound.

      The role bacteria, viruses, and other pathogenic microbes play in hosts is NOT to clean up waste.

      Good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle boosts the immune system and can prevent some illness but, definitely, NOT ALL illness. I haven’t got the time to go more into detail but need to say that if you believe that it is safe to expose animals (or humans) to other animals (or humans) who are infected with contagious disease, you are putting your animals (and yourself) in grave danger. (You are also endangering people who believe your beliefs, which you present as facts.)

      I suggest to read some scientific books dealing with infectious disease and not falling prey to simplifying quackery.

      I am sorry if this reads harsh, but the lives of animals and people are at risk when following wrong advice.

      I am glad your kitten survived the risk you exposed it to. At 10 weeks old, it was probably still protected by the initial mother milk (colostrum).

      • My feelings are not important or relevant. In any case, mistreatment of the messenger is common when people hear this information for the first time, particularly those who have made the complicated field of medicine a hobby of sorts. I was a medical believer most of my adult life as well, so I have been where you are. My own awakening to the truth took 10 years after I first encountered it. That was 16 years ago, so I’ve had a long time to get comfortable with it. Unlike you, I can say I’ve looked objectively at both sides.

        When the biological needs of any species are met, disease is impossible. Disease is not inevitable. It’s not difficult to see how it would benefit certain industries to have us believing that it is. Fortunately, many people are waking up to this fact.

        With information being more available now than ever before, it is becoming common knowledge how bad commercial pet food is. Even the best foods with so-called human grade ingredients are over-processed, mis-combined and contain far more indigestible substances than cats are set up to deal with. This is what primarily accounts for the epidemic of chronic disease among cats, with vaccines and medications being secondary.

        Every cell in a cat’s body is made up of what s/he is fed. As we all know, cells don’t live forever. They have a life cycle, just like whole organisms. When they die, the materials that are used to replace them must come from outside of the body. The quality of the food creates the quality of the cell, and the quality of the cell determines the overall health of the organism.

        Lilo, you have absolutely nothing to lose by transitioning a couple of your cats to natural, raw food. Watch their coats improve, their shedding stop, their hair balls and other health issues clear up. Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about the miraculous changes that occur when cats are properly fed. So many others are experiencing this as well, and their testimonies abound. I’d be happy to share some with you if you’re interested.

        • I agree with you on what you said about commercial cat food, Nora, but your original comment went far afield of that topic. I also tagree that species-appropriate nutrition is the foundation to good health, however, other factors come into play, too, such as genetics, environment, etc. That said, nutrition IS the one thing we can influence, but not everyone is going to be comfortable feeding a raw diet. There are other options. You can find a wealth of information right here on this site. Dr. Lisa Pierson’s site is a great resource as well.

          • I realize that, and I can easily stay on that topic (the Unity Theory of Disease) if you wish. However, it is not my intent to overwhelm people with information that runs counter to their belief systems. I’d rather use my limited time to find common ground and get people thinking about practical ways to take back their power from the sick pet industry. I will talk/write a blue streak about Natural Hygiene & the principles of toxemia if I feel welcome to do so, but that’s not the vibe I was getting. Thank you for the opportunity to gently shift the topic. To bring it around full circle and connect the dots, commercial cat food IS, without doubt, the #1 causal factor in cat “colds”. I’d be happy to say more on that topic if there is interest.

        • Just for your information:

          You are not the only one who has made medicine some kind of a hobby. (With me, it was a necessity because my husband and I traveled into wilderness areas, with professional medical services far away.) Over more than 4 decades (since I was in my mid 30s) I have read many dozens of medical books (mainstream as well as holistic), many of which dealing with infectious diseases. I have also read quite a number of books about different pathogenic microbes (bacteria, viruses, parasites). And I have also read a few books about microbiology. Some of the books I have read were written for interested laypeople; others were written for medical professionals.

          I am well aware of the shortcomings and commercial interests of the pharma industry. And I prefer natural/herbal/holistic treatments to chemicals wherever it makes sense.

          However, it is not only naive (to say the least) but extremely dangerous to reject each and every mainstream treatment. (If it weren’t for antibiotics, I would have died a long ago. I have survived 8 pneumonias and a number of other life-threatening respiratory illnesses, all but one pneumonia thanks to antibiotics.)

          It is wishful thinking that good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle will guarantee a disease-free life. There are lots of pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other microbes) around which are deadly even for people and animals with ideal nutrition and lifestyle

          Rabies, for instance, has a next to 100% fatality rate. (I say “next to” because there are 2 unproven (!) cases in history where someone might have survived rabies. Certain strains of Ebola have a 98-point-something percent fatality rate. A certain strain of rabbit pox, (which, cruelly, has been used to infect and exterminate rabbits in Australia) has a 99.8% fatality rate. I could go on and on.

          Of course, the fatality rate, once infected, is not the same as the infection rate. However, while the infection rate after exposure to a pathogen varies considerably, there are quite a number of pathogens that will infect just about every exposed human or animal of the “right” species when the infection happens according to the requirements of the pathogen. Some pathogens travel through the air (some via droplets, some via dust, some via air only) and have to reach mucus membranes of the next victim. Others travel via body fluids (blood, saliva, urine, and/or feces) and have to reach open wounds (however small) of the next victim. And others again have to reach the digestive tract. This is all a simplification. I cannot write a book here.

          Once a pathogen finds the “right” species within reach of its vector (such as a sneeze or cough, bite, food to be eaten, etc.) or finds its way otherwise to the right target body part (such mucus membrane, open wound, digestive tract, etc.), it depends on the infectious strength of the particular strain of pathogen how high the infectious rate will be. While some species of pathogens can be warded off by a healthy immune system, others can’t because they have special defenses against components of the immune system.

          When a pandemic happens, it is rarely because all infected (human or animal) individuals’ biological needs haven’t been met. (This may happen in war zones or in 3rd-world countries with malnourished populations, but not under normal conditions.) Pandemics (affecting humans, animals, and plants) have happened throughout history rather frequently, and this without unhealthy processed food (for humans) or commercial food (for animals) or chemical fertilizers (for plants).

          You say, “When the biological needs of any species are met, disease is impossible. I am sorry, but this statement is utter nonsense.

          This “a healthy body doesn’t get sick” myth is nothing new. It dates back to the 19th century, when only little was known about bacteria and next to nothing about viruses or other pathogenic microbes. It has since solidly been proven wrong. Yet this myth keeps arising and is sold as “truth” by gurus with little or no scientific knowledge. If these gurus were only after money, this would not matter so much, but here are (human and animal) lives at stake.

          You are right, Nora: Information is now available more than ever before. But not every information is based on facts. The book market and especially the internet is full of totally wrong information.

          And to the longevity of cats: We have had several cats live past age 20, all but one with commercial food. The one exception was fed with commercial food plus raw spleen (which she loved). And we had a number of cats die between 15 and 18. Most of these cats were avid mousers and supplemented their commercial food with plenty of mice (and unfortunately, also cottontail rabbits and birds). Our vet is not a fan of commercial raw food. He says that, in nature, cats eat mainly small rodents, all of which contain plant food in their digestive tracts.

          Besides, if we fed all of our cats with expensive raw food, we could not possibly save as many cats as we do. (We presently have 21 cats. Our all-time high was 35 cats.) Just do the math. I think 15 to 23 years is a fair life expectancy for a cat. And while we love all our cats and want them to live a long and happy life, I think it is better to save as many cats as possible to live an average of about 17 or 18 years rather than save only half as many cats (or even less) to live, maybe, 2 years longer.

          Btw, our 2 dogs are not getting any fancy food either. And our older dog was adopted 13 years ago as an adult (age unknown). This means that he is at least 14 years old. This is quite an age for a dog.

          I don’t consider commercial pet food ideal, but it cannot be quite as bad as its reputation; otherwise, none of our animals would have lived beyond normal life-expectancy.

          And again: Ideal nutrition (whatever it may be) is certainly no alternative to necessary vaccinations and/or avoiding infection.

    • With all due respect, Nora, there is a lot of misinformation in what you stated. This may be your belief, but it is not based in fact. Lilo already stated what I was going to say, so I’m not going to belabor the point. I’m glad your kitten didn’t get sick, but I consider deliberately exposing an unvaccinated young kitten to other kittens who are showing upper respiratory symptoms irresponsible.

  5. I have 2 semi ferals that I still cannot touch that have URI therefore I can’t get them to my vet and no they will NOT go into my trap no matter what I do…just need to know what to give them to put in their wet food I know the symptoms will clear within a week or 2 but meanwhile what can I get them OTC?

    • I think Rebecca’s and Lisa’s advice is very good advice. Colloidal silver is probably the best you can do in your case. I’ll let you know if I should think of something else.

      P.S. Do NOT attempt to trap cats in freezing weather. They will not survive very long in a trap.

  6. I have one cat that battles respiratory infections a couple times a year and it has gone on since the first day I got him (he is 14 now). The first couple years the vets didn’t know what caused it and swore cats didn’t have airborne allergies. But he would start getting congested about the same time I did and I knew mine was allergies. Because they didn’t know how to treat him, it always went straight to respiratory infection. We went through many vets before someone figured it out. But it got to the point where we almost lost him. Now we know a treatment plan and even give him breathing treatments at home when he gets bad. And I think one of my other cats is getting a cold now. she has been sniffly and sneezy the last couple of days. I will take your advice on how to help before taking her to the vet.

    • Try mixing Vit C powder into canned food but make sure to give a steady supply; changing the dosage might cause more harm than good.

      You can also try adding brewer’s yeast. Some cats love it; others hate it.

  7. We had a corona virus epidemic in our multi-cat household, in Jan/Feb 2003. Of 35 cats, 27 got sick; one died. We used my oxygen-concentrator to save this cat, but it was too late. (It had been a newly adopted stray cat, which had not been properly dewormed yet. The autopsy showed worm infestation that was assumed to have compromised the immune system. The corona virus had reached the brain, caused meningitis, which killed the cat.)

    In summer 2015, an irresponsible house-/petsitter brought us 3 kittens while we were out of town (telling us a lie-story). All 3 kittens came down with a very serious respiratory infection. Our vet thought they had been infected by their mother (a stray at the house-/petsitter’s property). We had to isolate the kittens from our cats. (It was a terrible mess because the only isolation room available had carpet floor, and the kittens also suffered from giardia, that is, terrible diarrhea and no control over their bowels.) When we thought the kittens were finally well again, we had them vaccinated against rabies. The vaccination stressed the immune system. One of the 3 kittens relapsed and died. (This poor kitten had been locked in the heating system without food and water for [probably] 6 days by the irresponsible and, as it turned out, insane house-/petsitter. This must have compromised the poor kitten’s immune system.) When this kitten rapidly went downhill (on a weekend) and had severe trouble breathing, we called our vet (who lives 30 miles away). He advised as an emergency treatment to use a human decongestant (dosage according to weight). Unfortunately, by the time the decongestant was retrieved and the right dosage measured, the poor kitten was dead.

    Chancy, our 15-year-old white cat, has had health problems, mainly respiratory, all his life (not unusual with white cats). He is on and off of antibiotics. After a recent 6-week course of antibiotics, he was off again. Last weekend, Chancy had severe trouble breathing. (Since he had finished the last antibiotic treatment and his nasal discharge is not yellow, the infection seems to be viral.) Chancy’s condition was so bad that I was afraid he would not make it through the night. Remembering our vet’s advice to administer a decongestant in such an emergency, we hurried to do so. Chancy improved immediately but usually relapses a bit after 12 hours. Therefore, we give him the decongestant now twice daily. We use the old formula (pseudo-ephedrine plus guaifenesin), of which we still have some supply. (It had been a lifesaver for me, who I have a long history of severe respiratory infections.) The old formula is no longer on the market because it can cause heart problems (which it did for me, but I preferred the heart problems to suffocating). I don’t know how well the new formula (with a substitute for pseudo-ephedrine) works, but I think it would be worth a try.

    Health emergencies (with humans and animals), quite often, happen when medical professionals cannot be reached. It is a good idea to have something available that might save a life.

    While respiratory infections can be deadly with humans, they are, quite often, even more life-threatening with cats. Never assume that it is “just a simple cold”. Numerous viruses cause respiratory infections in humans and in animals. The corona virus (to which cats are susceptible) is one of the worst.

    • Oh my goodness, Lilo, you’ve been through some awful experiences with your cats – I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing your experience. I just want to stress that human medications should never be given to cat without the advice of a vet.

      • Yes, we have been through a lot of awful experiences with our cats.

        The worst was when, in 2003 (soon after the corona virus epidemic), Orphan Annie (our favorite cat who survived brain cancer spread to the bones with Essiac tea, in 2013), then a kitten (not yet vaccinated because of the corona virus epidemic) played with a rabid bat and caused us not only conundrum but a 6-mos quarantine, during which none of our 35 cats/kittens were allowed out of the house (we had to enter and exit through the sun room in the back of the house) and the vet had to come weekly to examine all the cats for possible rabies symptoms.

        Had we not agreed to this quarantine, our 7 (not yet vaccinated) kittens would have been euthanized by the Health Department or would have to be boarded with the vet in cages for 6 mos. On top of this quarantine, my husband and I had to get vaccinated for rabies (cost several thousand dollars for humans). The total cost for the whole calamity was $ 8,000+. Thus, our beloved Orphan Annie is probably the “most expensive” cat in the whole of Utah. 🙂

        And that wasn’t everything. When my husband and I were due for the 2nd booster shot after 12 months, blood tests were taken, and it turned out that my husband had not taken to the vaccination. Even though properly vaccinated, he had been totally unprotected all along. Scary, isn’t it?

        Btw, we still have (potentially rabid) bats living in the rocks only about 20 yards from our house. It goes without saying that since this rabies disaster, we make sure that all of our cats are always up to date with rabies shots.

        Back to the respiratory infection: You are right, human medications should never be given to a cat without the advice of a vet. I would not have dared to administer the decongestant without our vet’s recommendation.

        • The two young kitties I’ve been treating with the silver are almost over their colds! I know it’s not as beneficial as a vet visit,but they are feral. I have also had good results with llysine. You can get treats or gel. My cats never liked the treats. 1/2 tsp twice a day if it’s gel. Some cold symptoms can be caused by the feline herpes virus, which my inside cat has. The llysine really helps her recover faster.

          • I am glad you remind me of L-Lysine. We have also used it in the past but have not thought of it lately.

            Our vet suspects that many of our cats are infected with the feline herpes virus, but he says that nobody really knows what’s causing chronic respiratory-, eye-, and gum-infection with cats. Many veterinary schools blame the herpes virus, but it is just an assumption.

          • Happy to help. Another kitty of mine recently came down with the Calicivirus. I had never heard of it! Took him to the vet thinking he had hurt his leg…And there was nothing visibly wrong. He did have a fever though. Got pain reliever and went home. Two days later his leg was fine but he was sneezing, drooling,lethargic and had red spots/sores on his nose and mouth. Back to the vet. Diagnosed with the Calicivirus. There is a vaccine for it,but my previous vet failed to mention that. Kitty ended up dehydrated, and vet sent home fluids to give him, through I.v. which my daughter had to do, I was scared to death! I got him turkey baby food so he would eat something,took him in the bathroom for shower steam…His nose was plugged and couldn’t smell. Absolute worst sickness I’ve seen in a cat! Antibiotics won’t do a thing, unless it turns into a secondary infection. So Lots of TLC!! Four weeks have went by and he is just Now feeling good! Sorry for the looong reply. Someone else may not have heard of it either.

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