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Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI)

Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI)

Feline upper respiratory infection, also referred to as the feline upper respiratory infection complex and appreciated “URTI”, refers to infections in the area of the nose, throat and sinus area, much like the common cold in humans. In cats, these infections are quite common and very contagious.

Below is an overview of Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI) followed by detailed in-depth information on the diagnosis and treatment of this condition.

Infection is common in areas associated with overcrowding and poor sanitation. Cats at increased risk include those in catteries, from rescue shelters and in outdoor feral cat populations. The disease is commonly diagnosed in the spring and summer months when many kittens are born.

Several organisms, both bacteria and virus, can cause the infection. The two primary viruses involved are feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV) and feline calicivirus (FCV). Feline chlamydia, a bacterial infection, can also result in upper respiratory tract infections. Other organisms include Bordetella bronchiseptica, feline reovirus, cowpox virus and mycoplasma.

These organisms are spread from cat to cat through eye, nasal and oral secretions. Infectionc an also be transmitted through contaminated crates, cages, bedding, bowls and clothing. Unfortunately, unsuspecting owners can carry the virus from an ill or viral-shedding cat to their homes. This is a common way that feline upper respiratory infections are transmitted. The FHV virus can live up to a month in the environment. These viruses are easily killed by household cleaners, such as bleach.

Cats that recover from feline upper respiratory infection will periodically shed the virus throughout their lives in times of stress. It is uncommon for the cat to have a reoccurrence of the upper respiratory infection but they are considered a reservoir for the virus.

What To Watch For

Cats susceptible to upper respiratory infections generally develop early signs about two to five days after exposure. Fever and sinus congestion may also occur. The disease typically resolves in 10 to14 days, without complications. Be on the alert for complications such as lack of appetite due to poor smelling ability, pneumonia, eye ulcers or mouth sores. Very young kittens have a higher incidence of pneumonia and some do not survive the infection.

Diagnosis of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Cats

Diagnosing feline upper respiratory infection is generally based on physical exam findings and typical symptoms of fever, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, nasal discharge and occasionally drooling. Finding the exact viral or bacterial cause of the infection, however, is more difficult, and your veterinarian may not want to pursue it. Some diagnostic tests might prove helpful, however, such as nasal or throat swabs, blood tests to determine the overall health of the cat, and chest x-rays to detect pneumonia.

Treatment of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Cats

Since most upper respiratory infections are viral, there are no drugs available to kill these viruses so treatment is aimed at treating the symptoms and maintaining your cat’s overall health to bolster the immune system and help speed recovery. Basic treatment usually includes proper diet and sufficient fluids, antibiotics, nebulization (a process to humidify the air and keep the nasal passages moist), and eye medication if eye ulcers are present. If your cat does not respond to treatment at home, hospitalization may be necessary.

Home Care

If your cat is treated at home you will need to provide care that includes keeping the nose and eyes clear of discharge. Administer all medications your veterinarian prescribes and provide sufficient food and fluids so your cat does not become dehydrated. Keep your cat away from other cats until fully recovered or even longer due to the potential for viral spread.

Preventative Care

The best way to prevent upper respiratory infections is to follow the vaccination procedures by your veterinarian. Vaccines can be administered by two methods, intranasal method and injection. Also, keep your cat away from other sneezing, ill cats and take precautions when introducing a new cat to the household.

In-depth Information on Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

Feline upper respiratory infection refers to infections in the area of the nose, throat and sinus areas. It is caused by two major viruses: Feline Herpesvirus-1 (FHV) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV). Feline Chlamydia, a bacterial agent, also results in upper respiratory symptoms. Distinguishing among these three can be difficult, so it is not usually done.

Feline upper respiratory infection is very contagious. Cats at most risk include young kittens, unvaccinated cats, elderly cats and cats that are kept in close quarters with other cats such as shelters, catteries and even multi-cat households.

The viruses and bacteria involved in upper respiratory infections do not live very long outside of the infected cat. The disease is transmitted by a variety of methods:

Diagnosis In-depth

After exposure, incubation lasts from two to five days. Sneezing is usually the first and sometimes the only sign observed. Other signs include congestion, eye and nasal discharge and fever. Bacterial pneumonia, a serious complication most frequently seen in young kittens, often develops.

Despite having very similar signs of infection, feline herpesvirus-1, feline calicivirus and feline chlamydia have some signs that are specific. Being familiar with these signs may help with diagnosis.

However, eye ulcers, mouth ulcers or profuse eye discharge do not always occur. Consequently, the exact cause of the upper respiratory infection may never be identified.

Your veterinarian may wish to perform some diagnostic tests to determine the overall health of your cat as well as the response to the treatment. Some of these may include:

Treatment In-depth

Severely ill cats may be treated in the hospital however because of the contagious nature of the disease, your cat may be treated on an outpatient basis. Most cats begin to feel better in 10 to14 days with some cats showing great improvement in just five to seven days. Since there is no specific treatment aimed at destroying the virus, treatment is aimed at maintaining the overall health of your cat and making him feel better.

Follow-up Care for Cats with Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

Due to the contagious nature of this illness, many cats are not hospitalized unless significant complications, such as pneumonia, occur. While your cat is at home, you will need to provide the following care:

The best way to prevent upper respiratory infections is to follow the vaccination procedures recommended by your veterinarian. Vaccination can significantly reduce the potential for infection in cats that have not previous been exposed to the virus. Unfortunately, vaccination does nothing to eliminate the carrier status of previously infected cats and it does not prevent viral shedding.

Vaccines are administered by two methods: intranasal and injectable.

Keep your cat, and yourself, away from other sneezing, ill cats.


The prognosis is very good in most cats. The prognosis is worst in cats that are very young and those with virulent strains of the calicivirus.

Most cats that recover from upper respiratory disease become “carriers.” Your cat may show no signs of the disease, but may shed the virus in saliva, tears and nasal secretions, and become a source of infection to other cats. Recurrence is also possible, especially in times of stress, even without exposure to an ill cat. Introducing a new cat to your home can result in an upper respiratory outbreak. Keep in mind, even cats that appear healthy when adopted may be carriers.