Can You Give Your Indoor Cat the Sniffles? How Human Colds Affect Feline Friends


Can your indoor cat catch a cold from you? This is a common question many cat owners have, especially when people and felines are sneezing and sniffling at the same time. Colds in humans are usually caused by rhinoviruses, which do not infect cats. However, cats can develop upper respiratory infections caused by other viruses and bacteria. Understanding how these feline upper respiratory diseases are transmitted and if humans play a role is important for any cat owner aiming to keep their pet healthy.

Can Cats Get Human Colds?

Cats and humans have different immune systems, so human viruses like cold viruses do not directly infect cats ( The viruses that cause the common cold in humans are species-specific, meaning they have adapted to infect and transmit between humans but not other animals like cats.

This is because viruses bind to specific receptors in the cells of the respiratory tract in order to infect them. But the receptors on human cells and cat cells are different enough that human cold viruses cannot bind to and enter cat cells ( So while cats can get respiratory infections that have similar symptoms, they do not catch the exact same viruses that give humans colds.

Cats have their own set of feline-specific upper respiratory viruses that can cause them to develop cold-like symptoms. But these are not the same viruses that make humans sick. So while a human cold may look similar to a feline upper respiratory infection, cats cannot directly catch colds from humans.

Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Feline upper respiratory infections (URI) are common in cats and are caused by a variety of bacterial and viral pathogens. The most common causes of feline URI are the feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus, Chlamydophila felis, and Bordetella bronchiseptica 1. These pathogens infect the upper respiratory tract, including the nose, throat, sinuses, and windpipe, leading to inflammation and characteristic URI symptoms.

Common symptoms of feline URI include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion and discharge
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eyes)
  • Ocular discharge
  • Coughing
  • Gagging or retching
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

Feline URI symptoms can range from mild to severe based on the causative agent, the cat’s immune status, and other factors. Prompt veterinary care is recommended for affected cats.

Transmission of Feline URI

Feline upper respiratory infections are highly contagious between cats. The viruses and bacteria that cause URI are spread through direct contact and exposure to contaminated objects and environments. Even strictly indoor cats are at risk if they come into contact with other infected cats.

Boarding facilities, shelters, and multi-cat households are high-risk environments for transmitting upper respiratory infections between cats. When cats are housed together in close quarters, respiratory pathogens can easily spread through sharing food bowls, litter boxes, bedding and through sneezing, coughing and nasal secretions. Viruses like feline herpesvirus can also be shed continuously by carrier cats without symptoms and infect susceptible cats.

Bringing a new cat into a home with other cats substantially increases the risk of spreading URI. Shelters and boarding facilities should isolate cats during intake and have protocols for sanitization and disease prevention.

While indoor cats have less exposure than outdoor cats, sharing an environment with infected felines allows for direct contact and fomite transmission of contagious respiratory pathogens. Care should be taken to limit contact with unfamiliar cats and to sanitize thoroughly when URI cases are identified.

Risk Factors

There are several factors that can increase a cat’s risk of developing an upper respiratory infection (URI):

Stress is a major risk factor, as it can weaken the immune system. Sources of stress include changes in environment, new cats in the home, travel, and poor handling/restraint [1].

Poor nutrition can also impair immune function and increase URI susceptibility. Feedings a high-quality diet supports the immune system [2].

Inadequate vaccination increases the risk of URI. Kittens should receive a series of vaccines for feline herpesvirus and calicivirus starting at 6-8 weeks old [3]. Adult cats need periodic booster vaccines to maintain immunity.

Other factors include young age, crowded conditions, poor sanitation, and exposure to infected cats. Reducing these risk factors through proper care and management is key for preventing URI.

Can Humans Transmit Pathogens?

While human colds are caused by different viruses than feline upper respiratory infections, humans can potentially spread illnesses to cats. This is because we can carry germs and pathogens on our hands, clothes, and bodies that may be harmless to us but dangerous to cats.

According to PetMD, the most likely way humans could transmit an illness is if the human is already sick with a cold, flu or other contagious respiratory infection. When a human is actively ill, they tend to shed more viral particles into the environment through coughing, sneezing, runny noses, etc. These particles can settle on surfaces, clothing and skin where cats may later come into contact.

For this reason, it’s recommended that people who are sick minimize close interactions with cats, wash hands frequently and avoid sneezing or coughing directly on pets. While the risk of human-to-cat transmission may not be extremely high in healthy humans, it does increase when the human is actively contagious.


There are several ways cat owners can help prevent upper respiratory infections in their felines:

Vaccination is key – cats should receive vaccines for feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia according to veterinary guidelines. These vaccines help prevent infection from the most common URI pathogens. Annual booster vaccines are recommended. (1)

Proper nutrition supports a healthy immune system. Feed cats a high-quality commercial diet and avoid food bowls contaminated by other cats. Cats with URI often have reduced appetite, so tempting foods may help maintain eating.

Reduce stress, which can suppress immunity. Keep litter boxes clean, use feline pheromone plugins to ease anxiety, and limit changes to their routine. Provide scratching posts, toys, and affection.

Limit outside guests like new cats, dogs, or visitors that could carry pathogens on clothing or hands. Wash hands before and after contact with any cats.

Keep the environment clean with daily scooping of litter and regular disinfecting of food bowls, bedding, and toys. Separate food, water and litter bowls between cats to prevent sharing of germs.


Feline upper respiratory infections require veterinary oversight to properly diagnose and determine the right course of treatment. While some mild cases may resolve on their own, most cats need some form of medical intervention to recover fully.

Common treatments prescribed by vets include:

  • Antibiotics – Antibiotics like doxycycline or azithromycin help fight secondary bacterial infections. They are often prescribed for 7-10 days.
  • Anti-inflammatories – Drugs like prednisolone reduce inflammation in the airways.
  • Nebulization – Delivering medications via mist or aerosol can reduce congestion.
  • Eye ointments – Medicated eye drops/ointments treat conjunctivitis.
  • Fluids – Dehydration is a concern, so fluids and nutritional support may be given.
  • Antivirals – For herpesvirus or calicivirus, antivirals like famciclovir may be used.

A vet will determine which medications are needed based on the cat’s symptoms, diagnosis, and overall health. They can also provide guidance on supportive care like rest, hydration, and nutritional support. While over-the-counter supplements may provide some relief, a vet-prescribed treatment plan is essential for effective recovery.


With prompt veterinary treatment, the prognosis for cats with URI is generally good. Most cats will recover fully within 2-4 weeks with appropriate antibiotics, supportive care, and rest1. However, URI can become chronic in some cases, especially in multi-cat households where reinfection is common. Cats with compromised immune systems are also at higher risk for persistent or recurrent URI.

The specific prognosis depends on the causative pathogen and severity of symptoms. Short-term prognosis is best for uncomplicated viral URI caused by feline herpesvirus or calicivirus. With supportive care, symptoms usually resolve within 7-10 days. However, viral infections may not fully clear and can reactivate during times of stress.2

Bacterial infections often require longer antibiotic treatment, but most cats will recover within 2-4 weeks. The prognosis is more guarded with pneumonia or other lower respiratory complications. In severe cases, hospitalization, oxygen therapy, and aggressive treatment may be needed.

Overall, with attentive home care and follow-up veterinary treatment as needed, the prognosis for URI in cats is good. Most cats fully recover, but some may experience chronic or recurrent infections over their lifetime.


To conclude, while feline upper respiratory infections (URI) have similar symptoms to the human cold or flu, they are caused by different viruses. Cats cannot catch human colds directly from their owners. However, stress from environmental changes, like a new family member or pet, may weaken a cat’s immune system and make them more prone to developing URI. Some pathogens that cause URI in cats can also infect humans, so good hygiene practices should always be followed. If your cat starts showing signs of URI like sneezing, nasal discharge, or eye inflammation, take them to the vet for treatment. With supportive care and antibiotics if needed, most cats fully recover from URI within a few weeks. So in summary, while you can’t directly give your cat your cold, you can take steps to reduce their stress and minimize the chances of them developing a URI infection during times of change.

This article has reviewed the causes, transmission, prevention, and treatment of feline upper respiratory infections. We’ve seen that while cats cannot directly catch colds from humans, environmental stressors can sometimes allow opportunistic pathogens to cause URI in cats. With proper care and veterinary attention, most cases can be successfully treated. The key is to be aware of risk factors and signs of URI, act quickly at the first symptoms, and take measures to reduce stress on your cat’s immune system.

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