It has to be an allergy, right? She’s been sneezing for the last few days, and her eyes are watering up. She lives indoors, and probably hasn’t met another cat since her days in the animal shelter. It just doesn’t make sense that she could have caught anything.
Such is the weird truth of feline respiratory infections. They can happen without any recent history of exposure. Sure, cats catch colds from other cats just like we catch them from family, friends and co-workers. But there’s a key difference. Feline respiratory infections never really go away. Your sneezy stay-at-home cat didn’t just catch a cold. She’s had it since before you met her.
The vast majority of upper respiratory infections in cats are caused by one of two viruses—calicivirus and herpesvirus. There are differences between them, but they are similar enough to lump together for the sake of discussion. Most cats will fight off the symptoms and resume life as usual, but the viruses have a nasty trick. They permanently leave their own genetic material lurking inside cells, turning cats into lifelong carriers. There’s no way to get rid of them. And every now and then, the viruses switch back on.
Most cats will fight off the symptoms and resume life as usual, but the viruses have a nasty trick. They permanently leave their own genetic material lurking inside cells, turning cats into lifelong carriers.
Usually, this happens because of some stress or illness. The cat’s immune system is momentarily weakened or distracted, and the virus exploits the opportunity. Sometimes it’s easy to identify the stress. Maybe the family moved into a new home or had a baby, or the cat has been coping with some other unrelated disease. Other times, it seems the virus wakes up for no apparent reason.
Regardless, it isn’t usually long before it’s under control again. Just like human colds, most require no specific treatment and resolve on their own in a week or two. If your cat is eating, drinking and a bit sniffly, give her time because treatment options are limited.
Antibiotics may be useful if there is evidence of a bacterial infection layered over the viral one (usually indicated by thick, disgusting nasal discharge), but are otherwise completely ineffective against viruses and should not be prescribed. Nutritional supplements like L-lysine have long been used to soothe feline respiratory infections, but the evidence that they actually help is sketchy at best. And while some antiviral drugs may be used in severe cases, they are still poorly researched in cats and typically saved as a last resort. We’re working with a shallow toolbox here.
That said, there are cases where a trip to the vet is in order. Young kittens are more vulnerable to these infections, and can often benefit from supportive management to nurse them through. And any cat that is showing a declining appetite or severe congestion should be checked out before it gets worse. While the virus itself may resist treatment, it is often wise to start screening for underlying disease that may be giving the virus its opportunity to strike.
For most cats, however, the occasional cold is no more concerning than the ones we get all the time. But if you’ve been wondering how in the world your cat caught one to begin with, the answer is simple enough: It came pre-installed.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
TAKE ME HOME! Visit the CASPCA to meet your new best friend.
Hi, I’m Dino and please don’t be put off by my, um, portly shape. I’ve been stress eating since my owner brought me to the CASPCA, but I’m very energetic and I’d love to spend time with you on various adventures. Bonus: I’m housebroken!
Hey, I’m Clyde. I can’t see very well, but that doesn’t get me down. As long as I’m around my person, I’m happy. At the CASPCA, I’m known as a lover boy—I follow staff and volunteers and work my wooing magic.
Hey there. I’m Riggins. I came to the CASPCA as a stray, in need of a little TLC. Now that I’ve gotten it, I’m just looking for a nice place to hang out—a warm, soft bed where I can stretch my legs at the end of a day (hopefully after a long walk!).
What’s up? I’m Enzo. I’m 10 years old, but I still have a lot of energy. I especially like running around the CASPCA with my buddy, Bones. He puts up with me, but some other cats find me overwhelming (and I don’t care for dogs).