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Q:   What does it mean if my cat has a cold?

A:  When I was in veterinary school, I was taught to not call upper respiratory infections in cats a “cold.”  The argument was that it gives the impression that they get the same disease we get.  Throughout years of practice, however, I have learned that the easiest way to describe the upper respiratory complex to a client is to indeed call it a “cold.”  The cat cold is akin to most aspects of feline living, though; cats are not humans in cat-suits and truly make up their own rules.

Feline upper respiratory disease is made up of a complex network of bacteria and viruses that are commonly found in the environment.  Most, if not all cats, have been exposed to these pathogens at birth.  Feline herpes virus is the biggest culprit for the development of chronic sinusitis and conjunctivitis in cats, with acute outbreaks commonly occurring during periods of developmental stress or transition (for example, during the first week of being placed in a new home).  In this sense, the cat cold behaves very similarly to the human cold, but the bugs are different.

It is important to remember that cat colds are usually self-limiting, just like human colds.  If you give a bright and alert sneezing kitten some time, the sneezing will likely go away.  Veterinary advice or treatment should be sought, however, if any thick or yellow/green discharge appears from the eyes or nose, or if the cat or kitten stops eating or is lethargic.  It is possible for more severe cases to develop fevers and/or pneumonia, but this is rare.  Some cats need antibiotics if secondary bacterial infections are suspected.  However, it is important to note that oral anti-virals in cats are reserved for refractory or severe cases due to expense and the potential for side effects.  Ocular anti-viral therapy for concurrent conjunctivitis is much more commonly used but must be administered multiple times per day.  Finally, another form of treatment is L-lysine, an important amino acid, which has been shown to decrease viral DNA replication thereby speeding up healing time and reducing the ability for cats to shed the virus in a multi-cat household. 

Overall, prevention is the key.  Regular visits to your veterinarian and completion of the core vaccination protocol in kittens and adult cats will lessen the severity of clinical signs associated with the cat cold for the life of the cat.  Some cats may be predisposed to catching the cold, such as “smushed-face” kitties (for example, Persians) or cats that are constantly introduced to strays and/or environmental stressors.  The cat’s ability to fight colds improves as the cat matures and many will never have a cold their entire life.  Perhaps yet another reason cats have it better than us…

 [doctor name = “Heather Troyer”]