Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection

Sneezing, congestion, nausea, runny eyes...Sound familiar? It should, it's usually the sign of a cold or respiratory infection in humans. Did you know your cats can also have an upper respiratory infection?

silver Persian Cat inside red Sleepypod Carrier in vehicle
Brulee on her way to the veterinarian

A Feline Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) is a common illness in cats. It similar to a common cold, but can be more serious because it's caused by different viruses or bacteria and targets the upper airway (nose, throat, sinuses) rather than the lungs (Nazario, 2020).

Synonyms for an URI are Feline Infectious Respiratory Disease and Feline Upper Respiratory Disease Complex (Yuill, 2021). Thankfully, vaccinations have reduced the prevalence of serious respiratory diseases in felines, but they haven't eliminated the highly contagious pathogens that cause them (Cornell Feline Health, 2018). The upper respiratory tract includes the nasal passages, sinuses, oral cavity, back of the oral and nasal cavity (pharynx) and the vocal folds (larynx). An URI can last from 7-10 days and is highly contagious.


Possible symptoms of an Upper Respiratory Infections are clear or colored discharge from the eyes or nose, sneezing, coughing, swelling of the mucous membranes around the eyes, ulcers in the mouth, lethargy, and anorexia. In rare cases, cats may have difficulty breathing. Additionally, cats can experience the following:

  • runny nose
  • gagging
  • drooling
  • fever
  • squinting or rubbing eyes
  • hoarse meow or no meow at all
silver shaded Persian cat with eye and nasal drainage
Brulee's face with drainage from her eyes and hose from her URI


There are two main types of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections: Feline Herpesvirus and Feline Calcivirus.

The Feline Herpesvirus Type 1 (aka Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis) is related to the virus that causes chickenpox and cold sores in humans, but cats can't give it to their owners. Research has shown that up to 97% of cats are exposed to feline herpesvirus in their lifetime and up to 80% of those cats can have a lifelong infection. Of those infected, up to 45% will periodically shed the virus, usually when they are stressed.

The Feline Calicivirus (FCV) is a highly contagious virus that causes a mild to severe respiratory infection and oral disease. The FCV virus is common in multicat environments such as shelters, pet stores, and catteries and often infects young cats. Most cats have a complete recovery after a calicivirus infection. The FCV virus can survive on surfaces for up to a month in certain environments.

Other possible causes of upper respiratory infections may include

  • Feline Chlamydiosis. Bacterial infection that infects the eyes. Symptoms are runny eyes and possible conjunctivitis.
  • Bordetella. Bacterial infection that is usually associated with stress and overcrowded living conditions. This is more common with dogs than cats.
  • Fungal Infections. Cats can pick up fungal infections through bird droppings and decaying plants.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for developing an upper respiratory infections are similar to those for humans.

  • Age. Kittens or senior cats are more likely to get infections because their immune systems aren't as strong.
  • Vaccination Status. Keeping your cat up-to-date on vaccinations can help keep them from getting sick or cause an infection to be milder.
  • Physical Condition. Cats with a compromised immune system, such as feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus. Medications or other illnesses that suppress the immune system may put cats at risk.
  • Stress. If a cat is stressed, she can become more likely to initially pick up a virus and can cause it to come back at a later time.
  • Breed. Persians and other flat-faced breeds are more likely to get an URI because of their facial structure.
  • Environment. Cats are more likely to come in contact with infected cats or fungi that cause infections if they go outdoors.
silver Persian cat being examined by a veterinarian
Brulee being examined by her veterinarian, Dr. Heyward Boyette


Most upper respiratory infections will resolve themselves with time and home care. As long as your cat is still eating and is acting normal (even if sniffling), she can be watched carefully from home. If your cat isn't eating, is listless, or is congested enough that she is opening her mouth to breath, you should take your cat to the veterinarian. If left untreated, some URI can turn into pneumonia or have other serious complications.

The veterinarian will examine your cat for outward signs of an URI. He may want to do a blood test and other lab work to rule out other causes for your cat's symptoms. A veterinarian may also choose to grow a culture from an eye or mouth swab to establish exactly which virus or bacteria is causing the infection. Chest x-rays may be performed to help diagnose a fungal infection. The veterinarian may also do an electrolyte test to determine if your cat is dehydrated.

Most URIs are viral in nature, but your veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic to protect from a possible secondary infection or to treat potential bacterial infections. He may give your cat fluids to help rehydrate her. If your cat hasn't been eating, the veterinarian may prescribe an appetite stimulant.

Once home, you can provide the following to help your cat rest and recover:

  • Rest. Provide a comfortable and private place for your cat to rest without disruption.
  • Eat. Encourage your cat to eat. With a URI, she may not be able to smell her food, so you may consider slightly heating the food or tempt her with a strong smelly food, such as fish. Try to feed your cat canned food because it's healthier and isn't as scratchy on the throat.
  • Hygiene. Gently clean any discharge from the eyes or nose with a warm and soft cloth.
  • Steam. Put your cat in the bathroom with the doors closed and run a hot shower. This helps loosen up the congestion.
  • Medication. Give any medication your veterinarian may have prescribed. Make sure all medication is administered.

Personal Experience

I've had Persian Cats for the last 25+ years and Brulee is the one who tends to get an Upper Respiratory Infection about once a year. When she first began getting these infections at about 4 years of age, she would get them twice a year and some would require a quick trip to the emergency veterinary hospital because she was vomiting and had open mouth breathing. I haven't read any research about vomiting being a symptom of URI, but Brulee always begins her infection with this. If not treated quickly with antibiotics and fluids, Brulee's health can go downhill quickly. I've learned to get her to the vet as soon as she displays symptoms of vomiting, sneezing, nasal discharge, fever, and lethargy. Brulee usually receives an injection (Cerenia) for her nausea, antibiotics, and fluids. Occasionally, she will receive an appetite stimulate if her congestion is really bad and she hasn't eaten. Brulee was up-to-date on her vaccinations until she experienced a violent reaction to her FVRCP vaccination 3 years ago which required a 4-day stay at the emergency animal hospital. Our regular veterinarian recommended she no longer receive this vaccination.

At home, I tempt Brulee with treats and her favorite canned food to entice her to eat. I take her to the bathroom a few times a day and close the door and run a hot shower to help alleviate her congestion. She is very relaxed when she receives her steam treatment and will settle into my arms and rest for several minutes. Once she's calmer and she's been recovering for a few days, I begin cleaning any discharge from her eyes and/or nose with a warm wet cloth. 

Once Brulee has begun her treatment and is feeling a little better, she doesn't hide and tends to stay very close to me. 

The veterinarians believe Brulee has Feline Herpesvirus and she will continue to fight these infections. I try to keep my home as stress-free as possible, but my cats tend to pick up on my emotions and my personal life is quite stressful at this time in my life.

Silver shaded Persian Cat sitting on toilet in front of shower
Brulee getting her steam treatment from the hot shower running in the bathroom

Have you had cats who get Upper Respiratory Infections? What do you do to help them?


Cornell Feline Health Center. June 2018. Respiratory Infections. Cornell Feline Health CenterRespiratoryInfections | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Mitchell, Sandra C., DVM, DABVP. April 30, 2020. Treating Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats. PetMD. TreatingUpper Respiratory Infections in Cats | PetMD

Nazario, Brunilda MD. Feline Upper Respiratory Infection. FETCH WebMD.  Cat Upper Respiratory Infection Symptoms and Treatments (webmd.com)

Yuill, Cheryl, DVM, MSc,CVH.  2021. Feline Upper Respiratory Infection. VCA Hospitals. FelineUpper Respiratory Infection | VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)

Would you like to comment?

  1. I hope Brulee is feeling better soon! Binga was the one here who used to get URIs. Sometimes once a year. As a kitten, she came home with a bad kennel cold from the shelter. When she would get a URI, my human would just take her to the vet, get the meds and she would clear up without too much trouble.

  2. Purrs for Brulee. Angel Ellie was the one who got respiratory problems.

    The Florida Furkids

  3. This is a great article. ITA with the steam--it helped our elderly Benny when he had a URI. Also, you can try adding some meat baby food to their food to entice them to eat, as many cats like it as a treat.

  4. Our Sweetie was diagnosed with mycoplasma, which is why she has runny eyes and sneezes.
    We've given her antibiotics several times, but her symptoms just go away for awhile and come back.
    The vet says mycoplasma is very, very hard to get rid of, so I've stopped trying to antibiotic it away.
    Besides, Sweetie is difficult to pill, so it became a quality of her life...and mine...so we've left it alone.
    Feel better, Brulee.

  5. We hope Brulee gets to feeling better quickly. Poor girl

  6. We get that with our kitties every few years or so, and of course because we have multiple kitties it spreads fast. All of the treatments you mentioned we do as well. One thing, if they won't eat because they cannot smell even the smelliest of food - we liquefy the food and put it in a syringe and essentially force feed them - not fun and luckily we don't have to do that often.

  7. I hope Brulee feels better soon. My Polar Bear had Feline herpes and sneezed all the time no matter what we tried.

  8. Hoping Brulee feels better really soon!

  9. We are glad Brulee got the care and meds she needs. Purrs for quite healing!

  10. Poor sweet little Brulee! Bella came to us from the shelter as a kitten. She had a difficult case of feline herpesvirus and had been exposed to panleuk, so the shelter was going to euthanize her. Turns out she didn't contract the panleuk (we had her in isolation in our extra bedroom for a couple weeks) and we finally found the right antibiotic that cleared up her other issues. She is mostly good now, but will have a flare up on occasion. The first symptom is the third eyelid starts showing and her issues are mostly leaky eye related these days.
    Midnight & Cocoa
    Mini & Fluff
    Tyler & Marty
    Beeb, Beanie & Bella

  11. Purrs to Brulee and we hope she gets better soon.
    Every now and then my cat who is strictly indoors her meow goes well strange. Should I Worry?

  12. I’m purring for Brulee and hope she feel s better soon.

  13. Poor Brulee. We're purring and praying she will be all better real soon.

  14. Oh, boy, I know all about URIs! We hope Brulee is better soon.

  15. I have heard of URI in cats however never knew anyone that experienced such. I'm so sorry Brulee's been suffering with this for the past few years. However, with you by her side to keep an eye on her and tend to her needs she'll continue to recover nicely. Get well soon Brulee!

  16. Sorry about Brulee; yes, I'd think that recurrent issue like that ought to have an underlying cause. Some viruses can sit dormant only to rear their ugly head over and over again.

  17. Knowing your cat means that you can take the right kind of action. You know Brûlée has symptoms that need to be treated and your prompt and loving care makes sure she remains strong enough to fight any infection.

    Get well soon little lady, so many people are cheering you on.

  18. I have never heard of these ailments so thank you for sharing although I do not have cats I love learning, sending you all a hug

  19. I hope Brulee is feeling better soon! Some of the humans in my family are susceptible to upper respiratory infections, and it is can be rough.


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