When we adopted two kittens from PAWS Chicago, we noticed Foxy sneezed a couple times on the car ride home. Sure enough, a few days later, she was lethargic with a runny nose and watery eyes. We visited the nearest VCA Animal Hospital, and our vet confirmed the cat had a cold. Cut to the next day: Our second kitten developed identical symptoms. The good news is these colds quickly passed. The scary news is, if left untreated, cat colds can turn into pneumonia or be warning signs of more serious illnesses. Don’t ignore kitty sniffles!
Can cats get colds?
Yep, cats can get colds. However, vets typically refer to them as upper respiratory tract infections. Viruses, bacteria and fungus can all be the culprits. While viruses cannot be treated with medication (see below for ways to help your kitty heal if this is the case), bacteria and fungus can be killed with antibiotics and antifungal medications, respectively.
Our VCA vet told us cats can also develop illnesses like feline flu, feline calicivirus (FCV), pneumonia and feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR). Kittens typically receive an FVRCP vaccination when they’re young to protect them from airborne illnesses including feline flu, FCV, FVR and feline panleukopenia virus (which looks less like a cold and more like the flu). This vaccination is super important because it not only protects your cat, but also it protects all the cats your cat meets. Sure, you may not have playdates with other kitties often, but if a friend has a cat with FVR and comes over to hang out with your cat, the virus could cling to her stuff and spread to your home.
When a cat is infected with FCV or FVR, they become carriers of that virus. This means periods of stress could cause the virus to flare up, just like a cold sore, making your cat sick. During this time, your cat will be contagious to other cats. FCV is unique in that it causes ulcers in a cat’s mouth or around it’s nose. FVR is caused by feline herpesvirus type-1 and is primarily characterized by inflamed eyes and discharge in and around the eye area.
Pneumonia is often the result of untreated colds. It’s also very serious. Purina urges cat parents to contact their vet immediately if their cat displays any signs of pneumonia, like having trouble breathing or excessive coughing.
It’s worth noting single sneezes and coughs are perfectly normal. Cats don’t like breathing in dust any more than we do! It’s the long sneezing or coughing fits, repeated frequently over a couple days, that are concerning.
How do I know if my cat has a cold?
Cats are very good at hiding their feelings from people. You’ve got to be a diligent detective and keen observer when it comes to monitoring your cat’s health. Any irregularity is worth mentioning to your vet at your cat’s annual check-up (please bring her in for annual check-ups). While all kitties are unique, your cat will likely display one or more of the following symptoms if she has a cold:
- Runny nose (yellow, green or clear discharge)
- Stuffy nose (look for open mouth breathing)
- Frequent sneezing
- Coughing (unrelated to hairballs)
- Decreased appetite
- Red, watery eyes
- Ulcers in the mouth
- Difficulty breathing
Again, these symptoms are just a few that vets recognize as strong indicators your cat has a cold. You know your cat best! If something is off with their behavior, don’t wait it out. Take them to the vet for a check up.
I have multiple pets, do I have to worry about cross-contamination?
Upper respiratory infections in felines are incredibly contagious to other felines. The good news is dogs and people cannot catch colds or other infections from cats. Generally speaking, viral and bacterial infections are species-specific.
If you have more than one cat, it is imperative you sequester the sick kitty in her own space until she gets better. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance says ideally the infected cat can live in a separate room with her own food and water bowls, bedding and litter box. Placing a towel at the bottom of the door helps prevent cat friends from touching paws (which is sad, but necessary to keep everyone healthy). Be mindful of washing your hands and changing clothes after you visit your sicky! You don’t want to inadvertently carry a virus to your healthy cat.
4 measures to help your cat fight off a respiratory infection
1. Administer medicine prescribed by your vet. How you treat a cat with a cold depends on the root cause of the cold. For bacterial infections, administer antibiotics prescribed by your vet exactly as directed. Even if your cat starts to act like herself again, finish the medication to completely kill the illness.
2. Treat the symptoms. When it comes to viruses, all you can do is treat symptoms. Some vets may recommend eye drops or fever meds to help ease discomfort while the cat’s body regains strength. If your cat has a runny nose, gently wipe away the snot with a warm, wet cloth to help her breathe more easily. Boost appetites with her favorite foods! When our new kittens had colds, our vet recommended investing in a humidifier or letting them lounge in the bathroom when we took hot showers, hoping the steam would help.
3. Build up your cat’s immune system. Since our cats were diagnosed with a virus, we were told to add L-Lysine supplements to their food to help boost their immune systems. You can find it in powder form from a variety of brands (which is easy to mix into wet food) or treat form from companies like Zesty Paws. Make sure your cats have plenty of fresh water and stay super hydrated!
4. Hit up your vet. Take your cat to the vet. Please. They may want to do some bloodwork to make sure your kitty isn’t suffering from (or hiding) a more serious illness. The earlier you recognize your cat has a cold, the better.