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Cats are special creatures who like to make simple issues complicated ones- I suppose they find it amusing. But for those of us who are caring for them, it can be very frustrating. Here are the most common questions I am asked about feline respiratory disease. Hopefully this will clear some questions you may have as well.
What causes URI’s in cats?
Just like dogs, URI’s (Upper Respiratory Infections) in cats can be viral or bacterial. However, in cats, viral infections are usually the primary cause with bacterial infections being secondary. The major viruses in cats that cause the URI’s are the herpes and calici virus. Cats can also be infected with bordetella (part of “kennel cough” in dogs) but this is not as common with the exception of shelter or large kennel situations. Generally, one does not know which virus is causing the illness-routine URI’s are treated the same regardless of the cause (supportive care and antibiotics to name a few). Testing is available but can be expensive so it is generally reserved for more special cases.
What are the clinical signs of a URI in cats?
Clinical signs can vary, depending on the severity of the infection and also the cause. “Routine” signs can include: nasal discharge (varying from clear to greenish, sometimes blood), sneezing, sometimes coughing, lethargy, decreased appetite, and fever. Eye infections are also common as a secondary problem, unlike URI in dogs. Redness, ocular discharge (clear to yellowish), puffy eyes, and even corneal ulcers can be present. Herpes infections are generally the cause for corneal ulcers, they can also result in ulceration to the front of the nose and even the skin surround the eyes in severe cases. In addition, just like in people, once a cat is infected with the herpes virus, they are infected for life. For animals severely affected at a young age, this can cause chronic problems, but in most cases it is not noticed unless the animal becomes stressed, as stress can cause mild flare-ups such as sneezing or runny eyes. Calici virus infections can cause ulcers in the mouth and lameness.
How does one diagnose a URI in cats?
Diagnosis is generally made based on clinical signs. Testing is available to differentiate between viruses but in most cases is not necessary.
What is the treatment for URI’s in cats?
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the infection and the individual. In mild cases, supportive care may be all that is necessary. Supportive care would include making sure the animal keeps hydrated, ensuring low stress levels and keeping them comfortable. In more severe cases oral antibiotics may also be required to treat any secondary bacterial infections. Medication can be given to help reduce any temperature or to help with lameness. Topical antibiotics may be prescribed for an eye infection. Generally, most cats recover quickly with proper care and most infections are somewhat self limiting. Individuals in lower stress environments are more likely to recover quickly and with less medication than ones in high stress situations, like a shelter with a lot of other animals.
Severe eye infections and corneal ulcers generally require more intensive treatment, with medication lasting several weeks. In some cases, corneal ulcers may worsen to the point of removal of the eye is necessary. Oral ulcers may also complicate treatment, especially if they are severe enough to cause anorexia.
Is a URI in cats contagious?
Yes. Other cats are susceptible. While cats are vaccinated against these viruses routinely (FVRCP, FVR and C are for herepes and calici), the vaccine does not 100% protect against the infection but it does help to decrease severity of the illness should the animal become ill. Severity of the illness depends on the overall health of the animal and their situation. Otherwise healthy individuals in low stress situations generally have mild illnesses, while highly stressed animals are usually the ones who get the sickest. It is recommended that sick animals be kept separate from healthy ones until they have recovered.
As always, if your pet is displaying any signs of illness, consult with your veterinarian for a plan of proper treatment.
Written by Dr. Cynthia Moon
Veterinarian at Wayside Waifs