URI - The Sneezing Cat

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

My cat is sneezing. What is the matter? Is it serious? What should be done to make it better? Will my other cat catch it?  It is a frequent litany of concerns discussed between cat owners and their veterinarian. Here are some things to keep in mind if your cat develops the problem.

Upper respiratory infections (URI) are quite common in cats. Serious disease or death due to common URI, fortunately, is very rare. However, these infections are not trivial. In group settings and when young or unvaccinated cats congregate, URI can spread easily and affect large numbers of the population. In animal shelters, especially, these infections can result in increased health care costs and decrease the ability to place animals in homes. It is also possible that acute URI can predispose to later development of chronic nasal sinus problems, a problem in cats which is difficult to manage and usually impossible to cure. Also, more virulent strains of the common viruses that usually cause URI, occasionally result in more serious disease.

Multiple factors play a part in causing URI in cats. There are different risk factors in individual cats that will influence the chances of them developing the problem and there are many different disease agents that can cause these infections. Sometimes these agents act alone, sometimes they act in combination with others, to cause a problem. Viruses are the most common causative organisms but often secondary bacterial infection may follow the primary viral URI. Feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus (aka feline rhinotracheitis virus) are the viruses usually involved.

Regardless of what organisms is the cause of the problem, the clinical signs in an infected cat are similar. Sneezing, discharge from the nose and/or the eyes and loss of appetite are the most commonly reported symptoms. However, coughing is sometimes a problem and calicivirus can cause ulcers in the mouth and throat. Cats with URI will often develop a fever that will make become very lethargic, quiet and withdrawn.

In most cases, cats with URI will recover without specific treatment. Good nursing care is probably most important in assisting recovery. This is usually best provided in a home situation, rather than in hospital, both to minimize exposure of other cats to a contagious infection and to minimize stress and likelihood of secondary infection in the affected cat. Loss of appetite can sometimes be overcome by simple measures such as feeding foods with strong odours, such as fish-based cat food or by warming the food. Although ineffective against the most common causes of URI - viral infections - antibiotics are often used to treat bacterial secondary infection. L-lysine is an anti-viral nutriceutical that may be helpful with herpes virus infections in cats. Other topical anti-viral drugs are used if corneal ulcers develop with herpes virus, one of the more serious complications of the infection, occasionally encountered.

Prevention of feline URI is dependent on both management practices to minimize exposure to individuals with the infection and vaccination. In catteries and shelters, minimization of crowding and stress, cleanliness and routine disinfection are all crucial when cats are housed together. Vaccinations are available against most of the common causative organisms of URI. For individual pet cats, recommendations from the 2006 American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccine Advisory Panel suggest that vaccination against feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus should be considered core vaccines, that is vaccines that all cats receive. However, it is important to understand that vaccination does not prevent infection but rather is important to minimize disease severity in our pet cats.

If you have more questions about respiratory disease and your cat, ask your veterinarian.