Sniffles, Sneezing, and Cough, Oh My! — Can Cats Get Colds Just as Humans Do?

Pet Care

petvblog

February 22, 2021
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Can cats get colds and coughs just like humans do? Although we sometimes believe that love, nutrition, and a warm home are all our furry friends need, both dogs and cats can suffer from somewhat similar illnesses to what humans deal with every day. Some of the most common conditions include upper respiratory infections, usually known as cat flu, which come with some familiar symptoms of the human cold.

Now, cat flu sounds worrisome, but in reality, it’s a general term for a few infections that are all preventable if we follow some common sense rules of cat care. One of those is to get our cats vaccinated and stay on top of the vaccine booster schedules.

But how can cats get colds, and which symptoms should we be wary of? Today, we answer those and many other burning questions you may have about cat colds and coughs. First things first, though — let’s discuss the main types of respiratory infections felines can suffer from.

The Million Dollar Question: Can Cats Get Colds?

So can cats get colds, much like we humans get the sniffles every now and again? Why, yes! Felines are susceptible to colds and can develop the telltale symptoms most of us are familiar with, like sneezing and a runny nose. In the case of cats, however, there are a few things that contribute to them getting sick, and thus, a few types of colds.

We mostly use the term “cat flu” to refer to a few upper respiratory diseases that affect cats of all ages. These conditions are usually caused by bacteria or viruses.

The most common types of viral cat colds or cat flu are FVR (Herpesvirus Type-1) and FCV (Feline Calicivirus). These account for about 90% of all feline respiratory tract infections. If we’re talking about bacteria-driven colds, then the infections are usually caused by Chlamydophila felis and Bordetella bronchiseptica.

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Herpesvirus Infection

FVR, or feline viral rhinotracheitis, is a viral infection that mainly affects domestic and wild cats since it’s species-specific. More precisely, it’s an upper respiratory disease that may occur if a cat comes in direct contact with viral particles.

Age makes no difference for this infection, as it can affect both young and old felines. Younger animals may be slightly more prone to it if they have another chronic disease. Kittens, in particular, are at risk of serious infection if the mother is a latent carrier.

Typically, the incubation period lasts for anywhere between two and five days. During that time, the sick feline can act as a carrier and transmit the infection to other cats. Once the first symptoms occur, the active infection goes on for about ten to twenty days.

One interesting thing about this infection is that it doesn’t make all cats active carriers. Some may remain latent, which means that they will still have the virus in them, but it won’t be active. At some point, the virus could reactivate due to illness or stressful changes in the environment, for instance. When that happens, the feline is once again contagious.

Symptoms

Most commonly, FVR affects the eyes, the nose, and the throat, causing a range of symptoms cat owners could easily notice, such as nasal congestion and sneezing. Another telltale sign is conjunctivitis or the inflammation of the tissues around the cat’s eyes. The feline may also blink more than usual. The discharge may come out from both the nose and eyes, too (either clear and mostly water-like or full-on thick pus).

If they have FVR, cats may also develop enlarged lymph nodes and fever, become lethargic, and lose their appetite. In case the infection is severe or chronic, it may cause the onset of keratitis as well. This is an inflammatory condition that affects the eye cornea and may cause corneal ulcers and chronic dry eye or corneal scarring in more severe or chronic patients.

Calicivirus Infection

Another viral type of cat cold that may attack felines is the calicivirus infection. Like FVR, FCV can infect both exotic and domestic cats. However, it causes both respiratory issues and oral disease.

Since it is a highly contagious disease, calicivirus usually appears in crowded facilities, so protecting unvaccinated cats from carriers is necessary. The symptoms can range from mild to severe most of the time. However, kittens are at particular risk if their immune systems have been compromised.

The incubation period for this disease is two to six days. The clinical symptoms will last anywhere from 14 to 21 days.

Symptoms

Just like FVR, FCV also affects the nose, the throat, and the eyes, with its most common symptoms being:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Nose and eye discharge

A symptom that differentiates FCV from FVR is the development of oral ulcers. The infected cat may get painful tongue, gum, lip, hard palate, and nose ulcers. This may give way to other symptoms like extreme drooling and salivating.

Other than that, FCV has some non-specific symptoms as well:

  • Low energy and lack of appetite
  • Squinting and pink eye
  • Fever and dehydration
  • Difficulty breathing and chewing food
  • Arthritis and lameness (and thus pain whenever the cat is walking)
  • Bleeding from various areas of the body

One of the main problems with FCV is that there are a few strains, some of which can be deadly. One such strain is Virulent Systemic Feline Calicivirus, which causes severe generalized disease and comes with its own set of symptoms, including face and limb edema and ulcerative pododermatitis. Sudden death is common with this strain, with a case fatality of 40%.

Feline Chlamydophila

One of the main bacterial upper respiratory infections cat owners worry about is feline chlamydophila, which is caused by an organism of a similar name — Chlamydophila felis. This infection has an incubation period of between three and ten days. It mostly targets young cats and kittens, though there’s evidence it may affect cats of all ages.

Symptoms

Much like FVR and FCV, feline chlamydophila affects the eyes or the nose. The most common symptoms include:

  • Conjunctivitis. The bacteria infect the conjunctiva, causing inflammation, which makes it red and swollen. The condition may affect one or both eyes.
  • Eye discharge, which is first watery and then develops into a thicker yellow or green liquid.

Changes in behavior aren’t so evident with this bacterial infection, with most cats seeming normal despite the disease. In some cases, though, they may lose their appetite or get a fever, start sneezing and get the sniffles too.

Letting the infection spread can prove fatal in kittens whose immune systems are just not strong enough to fight the infection. If the infection spreads to the lungs, they may develop pneumonia, which is often deadly. In general, treatment is a must because of infection spreading as well — until it’s been dealt with, the cat remains in discomfort and can infect other cats too.

Feline Bordetellosis

Finally, there’s the highly infectious feline bordetellosis caused by a bacteria called Bordetella bronchiseptica. This contagious respiratory disease is much more widespread than you may think, with its seroprevalence rates ranging from 24% up to 79%.

The cats that are most at risk from this disease are those living in shelters, rescue centers, multiple pet homes, and in otherwise unhygienic conditions. The most severe infections target kittens, in which case it can develop into bronchopneumonia and cause death.

Symptoms

This infection attacks the bronchi and the trachea and has an incubation period of up to three weeks. Its most common symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Moist cough, wheezing, or crackling sounds coming from the lungs
  • Watery nasal discharge
  • Retching
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Difficulty breathing

Most cats develop a milder version of the disease, so the symptoms disappear fairly quickly, in about ten days. However, cats in recovery may shed the bacteria for 19 weeks or more after the infection. Because of that, it’s imperative to keep them separate from other animals (cats and dogs).

How Can Cats Get Colds?

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Can cats get colds only through direct contact with other infected animals, or could feline owners also transmit them? What about cold weather — are cats, like humans, also prone to sneezing and coughing after standing outside in snow or rain?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer to these questions, as it all depends on the type of infection we’re talking about and how careful we are around potentially infected cats. Still, we dug up some useful information to use as a reference if you think your feline could be infected or has infected some other cats.

Can Cats Get Colds From Other Animals?

  • Yes, to get infected with FVR, cats have to be in contact with another infected cat and its saliva or eye or nose discharge (airborne particles count too). Kittens may also get infected through their mothers while they’re still in the womb.
  • Similar to FVR, cats can get infected with FCV through direct contact with an infected cat. Airborne particles may pose a risk of infection when a cat sneezes, and there are also virus particles in the cat’s saliva and eye or nose secretions.
  • The organism cannot survive in the environment for too long, so for an infection to happen, the cat must come in close or direct contact with an infectious feline.
  • Feline bordetellosis. Cats may get infected through direct or indirect contact with both cats and dogs, like licking and nuzzling. The bacteria also spread through the air in droplets and indirectly in heavily contaminated environments.

Can Cats Get Colds From Humans?

As feline owners, we may not be able to transfer our own colds onto our cats, but we sure can transmit FVR and FCV, as well as bacteria, further. This may happen if we fail to wash up properly after handling an infected cat, as virus particles and bacteria can stay on us.

Can Cats Get Colds From Cold Weather?

Can cats get colds from going outside in the snow and lower temperatures? The truth is that most healthy cats don’t have a problem with cold weather, and they aren’t susceptible to getting colds from it. However, their immune system may worsen if they don’t have access to shelter (warmth in colder seasons) and proper food, which puts them at risk of infection. The weather cannot be directly responsible for the disease, but it can contribute to it in general.

Can Cats Get Colds From the Environment?

Yes, FVR and FCV particles can end up on inanimate objects too, which puts cats at risk of infection if they come in contact with these objects. They can get infected through stuff like food and water dishes, furniture, and similar. The same goes for bacterial infections caused by Chlamydophila felis (cats that share bowls and litter areas are at risk) and Bordetella bronchiseptica (can remain on feeding bowls, bedding, grooming tools, etc.).

Can Cats Get Colds From Fungus?

Some fungal species may also cause respiratory disease in cats. Cats can inhale the spores of C. neoformans, for instance, which can be found in decaying plant matter and bird droppings. The symptoms of this infection are fairly similar to viral and bacterial ones and include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Face swelling
  • Wounds that simply won’t heal
  • Polyp-like nasal and throat growths
  • Snoring and loud breathing
  • Labored or rapid breathing if the infection goes to the lungs
  • Anorexia
  1. neoformans infection may also affect the skin and the central nervous system, so prompt diagnosis is essential. It can be diagnosed with blood tests and by examining the nasal discharge. In some cases, it might be necessary to do a scan as well to see how much the disease has advanced.

Treatment includes using antifungal drugs. Therapy may last for months and even years, depending on how far the disease has gone.

Other fungi that may cause respiratory disease in cats include Blastomyces dermatitidis, Histoplasma capsulatum, Cryptococcus gattii, and Aspergillus fumigatus.

Fighting Infections With Vaccines

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So can cats get colds but still make it through without any huge health consequences? Of course, they can, but it’s always best to try to prevent the disease if at all possible. Fortunately, there is a vaccine for all of the above-mentioned viruses and bacteria.

The core vaccines that feline owners should make sure their cats get include the vaccines for feline distemper, herpesvirus type-1, calicivirus, and rabies. Other than that, owners may choose to vaccinate their cats against Chlamydophila felis and Bordetella bronchiseptica as well to ensure their felines stay healthy no matter their lifestyle.

The veterinarian may recommend giving the cat a Bordetella vaccine if you are looking to take it to the groomer or a boarding kennel. The Chlamydophila felis vaccine is given based on exposure risk as well; it might be an appropriate solution for cats that go outside often, visit grooming and boarding facilities, or live with other cats.

Keep in mind, however, that the cat will need regular vaccine boosters. The veterinarian should suggest a booster schedule to ensure the cat is never at risk of infection.

Other Prevention Methods

But can cats get colds despite vaccines? Unfortunately, we cannot rely on vaccines to protect our cats at all times, as they don’t offer total immunity. Thus, we as cat owners have to keep a close eye on them as well in order to prevent the sometimes deadly diseases. However, this doesn’t include anything complicated — it just entails following a few key rules, such as:

  • Following through with the vaccine booster schedule.
  • Investing time into preventative veterinary care to ensure we catch diseases on time.
  • Lowering the exposure to potential infections by keeping our feline indoors, i.e., not letting it roam around.

Stress can be a trigger for many conditions, so we ought to reduce it as much as possible to maintain our kitty’s health and immune system function. In case the cat still gets infected, we must isolate it from other pets to prevent the spread.

Of course, proper hygiene is a must as well. While taking care of the cat, we have to remember to keep washing our hands well to avoid spreading viral or bacterial particles around.

Keep in mind that there have been reports of cats transferring C. felis-associated conjunctivitis and Bordetella bronchiseptica to humans. Even though these infections are rare, it’s best to lessen their chances by keeping the overall hygiene in the household high.

Treating Felines for Cat Colds

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Diagnosis

Though you cannot know for sure if your cat has an infection just by looking at the symptoms, it’s best to stay on the safe side by getting the cat checked by a veterinarian. They will most likely recommend doing a few tests to determine which infection it might be and the potential cause. These include blood tests, eye or mouth swabs, and an electrolyte test. In the case of recurring infections, it might be necessary to do an X-ray as well.

Treatment

Treating a cat cold will depend on the type of infection the feline has, and only a veterinarian can determine the best course of treatment.

Since there isn’t one cure for cat colds, the treatment is usually symptomatic, meaning that we tackle the symptoms themselves and ease them, as we cannot do much about the disease’s basic cause.

Thus, if a cat has a milder upper respiratory infection, its owner can treat it at home with the vet’s guidance and some prescribed medications. We recommended:

  • Cleaning nose and eye discharge as gently as possible with a warm washcloth to reduce discomfort.
  • Keeping an eye on the cat’s appetite and encouraging it to eat to gain more strength. Since these infections target the respiratory system, it’s possible that the cat may lose its sense of smell a bit. A particularly pungent snack, however, may encourage it to eat.
  • Placing a humidifier next to it or taking the cat to a steamy bathroom to try to open up its nasal passages.
  • Isolating the cat in a peaceful area of the house where it can have all the rest it needs and be as comfortable as possible.

Treating Viral Infections

Unfortunately, we can only manage the symptoms of herpesvirus to reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups (recurrences). If your cat has FVR, the vet will probably prescribe some oral antibiotics or antivirals, and you can also use creams and drops to soothe the eye area.

Corneal ulcers may do permanent damage to the eyes, so it’s vital to treat them aggressively. Other medications, like antibiotics, serve to fight secondary bacterial infections that may wreak even more havoc and complicate the disease.

Do know that the virus may get triggered if the cat finds itself under a lot of stress. Thus, a stress-free zone is a must for a cat in recovery, and possibly until the rest of its life. Loud noises, new visitors, sudden changes in its routine or environment — try to avoid all of these to keep flare-ups at a minimum.

As for feline calicivirus, there is no cure or specific treatment, but once again, we can manage the symptoms. Milder infections may only need to be treated with medications and supportive care at home. These include anti-inflammatories, eye medications, and nasal decongestants, as well as pain medication if walking has become too painful.

To prevent secondary bacterial infections, the vet may also prescribe some antibiotics. If the cat develops anorexia (because the ulcers make it painful to eat), it might get an appetite stimulant as well.

If the cat develops pneumonia, it will have to be hospitalized. It will get oxygen if it cannot breathe properly, injectable medications to ease the symptoms, and lots of intravenous fluids to avoid dehydration. If it is not eating, the vet may need to use a feeding tube as well.

Treating Bacterial Infections

In order to treat feline chlamydia, the vet will most likely prescribe a combination of oral and topical antibiotics. The treatment lasts for about three to four weeks.

When it comes to feline bordetellosis, treatment calls for fluid therapy and antibiotics. Overall, the cat will need to rest for about two to three weeks. The vet will likely take special care regarding its lungs and do X-rays to ensure they are clear. In some cases, however, supportive care alone may be enough to resolve the infection.

Final Thoughts

So can cats get colds just as much as humans do? As you could see for yourself, cat flu is quite common in the feline world, so every cat is susceptible to it and must be protected from it.

Fortunately, there is a vaccine for the main types of cat colds most feline owners worry about, not to mention prevention techniques we could implement daily.

In the end, all it takes to keep our furry pet healthy is to think in advance by following a vaccine booster schedule, pay close attention to our cat’s behavior, and make sure it’s not exposed to other infected cats (and in some cases, dogs!).

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