Most cat owners, particularly those who have had more than one kitten in their lives, will have experienced the common symptoms of a cat with an upper respiratory infection. Adopting a cat or kitten from your local shelter, SPCA or even purchasing from a breeder often results in a kitty showing signs of a respiratory problem shortly after coming home. The typical signs of this are sneezing, coughing, running eyes and nose. Sounds like a common cold, right? Although these symptoms are very similar (in human terms), they are caused by a virus and not equally the same.
The most common viruses (approx. 90%) involved with cats are FVR (Feline Viral Rhinotraecheitis) and FCV (Feline Calici Virus). Less commonly, other agents like the Herpes virus and bacteria such as Chlamydia and Bordatella can be involved. All of these viruses and bacteria are very contagious, and they love to thrive and spread rapidly in shelters, catteries, boarding facilities and multi-cat households.
Stress and the state of a cat’s immune system plays a major role in terms of how serious these respiratory infections can become. Kittens that are immune-compromised, just because they are young, or adult cats that are stressed due to their environment or a change in environment like being newly adopted, are most susceptible.
Whether or not an owner needs to be worried depends upon the severity of the clinical signs. If your kitten or cat is still playful, eating and is bright and alert, with some periodic sneezing, then there is little to worry about. Like the common cold, the immune system will deal with the infection and the symptoms will likely disappear. In situations where your cat is clearly not doing well, going to your veterinarian for treatment is a must! On their own these viruses are not usually a concern, but if your feline stops eating, gets dehydrated or discharge from the eyes and nose starts getting worse, the situation can get very serious – and fast! Although there is no specific treatment (other than for Herpes virus), symptomatic treatment with fluid therapy, antibiotics and appetite stimulants are usually very effective in pulling cats through this unpleasant ordeal.
In the case of a viral infection such as Herpes, although the clinical signs may initially disappear, the virus does not. This virus likes to “hide” until stress or some other factor or disease compromises the immune system, allowing it to manifest itself again. If your feline has ongoing clinical signs, in spite of treatment, your veterinarian will likely be considering Herpes as a cause and may recommend doing additional testing for it.
Part of the “core” vaccines your cat receives as a kitten and then as an adult are very effective in protecting against these viral infections. An additional preventive measure would be to isolate any new cat that is introduced to your home for about two weeks. This not only helps with any behavioural issues that might arise from the new addition, but also minimises the risk of spreading these viruses to any other feline members of the family. On a side note, keeping your cats indoors not only minimizes their risk to outdoor dangers, it also minimizes their exposure to stray or feral cats commonly suffering from one of these respiratory viruses amongst many other diseases.