Can Cats Catch Colds?

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Early detection is beneficial when treating your cat for an upper respiratory infection.
Early detection is beneficial when treating your cat for an upper respiratory infection. (Image: fotoedu/iStock/Getty Images)

Our cats often suffer from many of the same ailments we do, but usually are not diagnosed or treated in the same way. If your cat displays common cold symptoms, he should be seen by his veterinarian immediately. Recognizing and acting on these symptoms is essential for your cat's continued health.

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection Symptoms

When your cat displays apparent cold symptoms, it is actually a feline upper respiratory infection. This condition is highly contagious between felines but does not pass from cats to humans or humans to cats. Your cat's upper respiratory infection symptoms mimic those of a human cold including nasal congestion, inflammation of the eyelids or conjunctivitis, sneezing and a discharge from the eyes and nose. The emanation from your cat's eyes and nose may be clear or have an opaque appearance. Depending on the infectious upper respiratory infection agent, your cat may develop ulcers in his mouth. Secondary symptoms of an upper respiratory infection may include lack of appetite, due to mouth ulcers, fever, lack of energy, enlarged lymph nodes and continuous squinting. Without treatment, your cat may develop serious breathing difficulties.

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection Causes

A feline upper respiratory infection is caused by one or more bacterial or viral contributors. The most common bacterial causes of a feline upper respiratory infection are Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophila felis. Conversely, common viral contributors are herpes virus and feline calicivirus. These agents are highly contagious and transfer easily from one cat to another. Cats can be in a "carrier state," where they show no apparent symptoms, but are infected and contagious. Exposure to infectious material can contaminate your cat but since upper respiratory infection agents don't survive long while airborne, direct contact to an infected cat is the most common cause. Infected mother cats can pass an upper respiratory infection to their kittens.

Cats at Risk

Shelter personnel rank feline upper respiratory infection as one of the most common diseases their veterinarians treat. Feline upper respiratory infections are highly contagious. A cat can be a carrier without displaying symptoms. Vaccines for upper respiratory infections are minimally effective and treatment options are limited. Some shelter conditions are ideal for the spread of upper respiratory infections due to factors including poor air circulation, large populations, poor sanitation, immune deficiencies, parasitism, nutritional deficiencies and stressed animals. Oftentimes, pet parents bring a seemingly healthy cat into a multicat household only to learn he's a carrier. Feral cat colonies often pass feline upper respiratory infections among the colony members. Fortunately, shelters are realizing dramatic improvements in dealing with feline upper respiratory infections by eliminating many of the subsequent factors, and addressing some of the underlying causes such as Bordetella bronchiseptica, herpes virus and feline calicivirus.

Preventive Measures

Pet parents have numerous options available to minimize their cat's chances of contracting an upper respiratory infection. The No. 1 safeguard is keeping your cat indoors. If your cat is displaying symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, isolation during treatment is essential. While the success potential of upper respiratory infection vaccines is precarious, getting your cat vaccinated is beneficial. Cats with an immune suppressing syndrome are more susceptible to catching an upper respiratory infection. If your cat has contracted an upper respiratory infection, and is undergoing treatment, clean and disinfect all surfaces he may have come into contact with. If your cat has reoccurring upper respiratory infection symptoms, he most likely has a "suppressed" viral infection that has never been completely eradicated.

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