Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats

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Discharge in the eyes from URI

Runny eyes and sneezing are common signs of an infection

Upper respiratory infection is a common illness in cats which can cause a variety of clinical signs that have to do with nose, mouth, and throat area. It closely mimics the human cold in the way that it is transmitted and exhibited. Every cat will respond to upper respiratory infections differently. Some cats may only experience mild signs of sneezing or coughing while other cats may nose dive immediately and experience open mouth breathing.

It is important that you monitor any small changes in their routine that could indicate that they are not doing fine.  Kittens that have not been vaccinated and exposed to upper respiratory infection are at the highest risk of becoming infected. Upper respiratory infections are quickly spread in areas that house many cats due to the stress level and close proximity to each other.

You should wash or sanitize your heads before and after touching any cat that is suspected of being infected, including stray cats which could transmit this infection to your own cats.

Veterinary Examination

A comprehensive history and exam from your veterinarian will be the best way to identify if there is any changes in your cat’s health that is of  concern. They will likely use a stethoscope and thermometer.

Your veterinarian will monitor their heart beat, rectal temperature, and respirations per minute. They might also observe the cat for lack of energy, lack of appetite, sneezing, or coughing. A glass slide may also be used to make sure that they are breathing okay through their nose or mouth.

Signs of Upper Respiratory Infection

Upper respiratory infections tend to last around 10 to 30 days on average but you will likely see improvements along the way. If you cat is exposed to an upper respiratory infection, the incubation period is 10-14 days. This is the time after exposure and before the onset of clinical symptoms.

Upper respiratory infections are spread by direct contact or by sneeze droplets between cats. The sneeze droplets carry the infection over form to cat in the form of inanimate objects like bowls or litter boxes.

The following is a list of signs you may see:

  • Eye or nasal discharge
  • Drooling
  • Eye or mouth ulcers
  • Fever
  • Lameness
  • Depression
  • No appetite
  • Pneumonia
  • Labored breathing
  • Open mouth breathing

An infected cat will have to fight the infection for the entire course since there is no formal cure. Specific drugs like clavamox or clindamycin may be given to prevent a secondary bacterial infection.

Treatment often includes antibiotics and supportive care. Supportive care will include but is not limited to hydration therapy, eye ointment, assist feeding, and providing supplements as needed. The food and water intake should be monitored from day to day for any changes.

Eyes symbolic of an infection

Eyes symbolic of an infection

Warm up all food prior to feeding it since cold food may cause vomiting and stomach upset. I like to warm up food by sticking canned cat food into a jello cup and placing that jello cup into a bigger container to warm it up naturally. Microwaving food is not recommended because it can decrease the caloric content of the food. Most cats will need about 30 calories per pound of body weight every 24 hours and 30 cc of maintenance water per pound every 24 hours. Food is often blended and fed through a syringe. I like to give about 0.5 to 1.0 cc or ml at a time so that they have time to swallow and digest.

Other ways to help may include hot showers to help open up the sinuses, wiping their nose every couple of hours, and a vaporizer that is safe for pets. You may ask your veterinarian for a suggestion on what to use. I like to put a small dab of Vick’s Vaporub on an infected cat’s nose every 12 hours to open with congestion. You can read more about treatment strategies here.

Prevention of Upper Respiratory Infection

The best prevention for upper respiratory infections is to ensure that your kitten has received their full round of vaccinations. Kittens need a beginning shot at 8 weeks old, followed by a booster shot at both 12 and 16 weeks old. The routine is one vaccination followed by two more vaccinations, three-four weeks apart from each other. The vaccination that is often given is the FVRCP which stands for feline rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia.

Finally, take a honest look at the housing and environment that they spend most of their time in. Upper respiratory infections can come back during periods of stress. Make every effort to decrease their stress level so the possibility of recurrence is low.

Consider the addition of scratching pads, beds, water fountains, and interactive toys that can keep them happy and entertained. I also recommend vertical space like cat trees and inviting toys that are left out such as catnip mice or balls that light up. Toys left out should be rotated every 2 weeks to remain their novelty.

You want to stimulate their mind and keep them from becoming bored since being bored can bring out unwanted behavior and stress. Ideally, each cat should receive 10-15 minute play sessions, 3-4 times each day to allow them to release pent up energy. The best toys to use are feather toys like Da Bird and wand toys like the Cat Charmer. View my list of favorite interactive cat toys here.


You want to disinfect every area that your infected cats have been or has had contact with. Depending on what strain it was or which upper respiratory infection it was, it could last a while in the environment. For example, herpes virus usually only lives for 24 hours in the environment while calicivirus can live up to 30 days. For more on strains and what to expect which each individual strain, click here.

You can use a 1 ounce of bleach to 32 ounces of water or you can use a commercial disinfectant. Spray the disinfectant and allow it to sit for a full 10 minutes before rinsing and drying the area. Use a steam cleaner on carpet that you cannot use bleach on. Launder any bedding.

Items that are disinfected should include bowls, carpets, laundry, litter boxes, and any other shared items. If any sneeze spots or organic matter is noticed on any item, you must clean it completely in a dish soap solution prior to disinfection with bleach. The dish soap must be rinsed prior to the actual disinfection as dish soap can deactivate disinfectants.

If you do not like bleach or are sensitive to it, I highly suggest the use of Trifectant. Trifectant is a safe and effective disinfectant in almost all situations. This solution is also safe on most cat trees and carpentering where the use of bleach or a steam cleaner is not ideal.


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