Does Your Cat’s Sneezing Mean Trouble? How to Spot Upper Respiratory Infections

What is an upper respiratory infection in cats?

An upper respiratory infection (URI) in cats is a contagious viral or bacterial infection affecting the upper respiratory tract, including the nose, sinuses, throat, and sometimes eyes (1). The most common causes of feline URI are the feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, Chlamydophila, and Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria (2).

Common symptoms of feline URI include (2,3):

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Eye discharge
  • Lethargy

URI is highly contagious and easily transmitted through direct contact, aerosol droplets from sneezing/coughing, or contact with contaminated surfaces. Kittens, shelter cats, and cats with weakened immune systems are most susceptible.

Common causes of URI in cats

The most common causes of upper respiratory infections in cats are viral infections like feline herpesvirus and calicivirus. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, these viruses account for approximately 80-90% of URI cases in cats.

Feline herpesvirus or feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) is extremely contagious and spreads through direct contact between cats. The virus infects and damages the cells lining the nasal passages, sinuses, throat and eyelids. FVR infections tend to flare up when cats are stressed.

Feline calicivirus is another common virus that leads to URI in cats. It causes ulcerations in the mouth and respiratory tract. Cats infected with calicivirus often have a limping gait in addition to respiratory symptoms. Like FVR, calicivirus is highly contagious between cats (Source).

Bacterial infections like Chlamydophila felis may also cause URI, though less commonly than viruses. C. felis infects the conjunctiva and respiratory tract, causing inflammation. It spreads through contact with eye and nasal secretions (Source).

Finally, fungal infections are an uncommon cause of upper respiratory disease in cats. An example is Cryptococcus neoformans which can lead to sneezing and nasal discharge.

How do cats get URI?

Cats typically get upper respiratory infections through exposure to infected cats or contaminated environments and objects. The feline herpesvirus and calicivirus that cause URI are highly contagious and spread easily through direct contact with an infected cat’s nasal discharge, saliva, or eye secretions. URIs can also spread through indirect contact with contaminated surfaces like food bowls, toys, bedding, litter boxes, or cages that have viral particles on them. Even sharing the same air space as an infected cat can allow the virus to be inhaled and passed on. Kittens and cats that live in crowded, high-traffic environments like shelters are at high risk of exposure.

In addition to exposure, cats with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to contracting URI. Stress, poor nutrition, and other illnesses can compromise a cat’s immune defenses. Kittens and senior cats tend to have underdeveloped or declining immune systems that cannot effectively fight off infection. Cats undergoing stressful events like adoption, boarding, or moving to a new home are also immunocompromised. Intact male cats that roam and fight are prone to viral exposures that can overwhelm their immunity. Any cat with a pre-existing condition is also vulnerable when exposed to URI pathogens.


Can sneezing be a symptom of URI in cats?

Sneezing is a very common symptom of upper respiratory infection (URI) in cats. When cats have URI, they will often experience bouts of sneezing along with nasal discharge and congestion. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, the sneezing is usually accompanied by discharge from the nose and eyes as the cat’s immune system attempts to expel infectious agents from the upper respiratory tract.

Cats with URI will typically have watery eyes and will rub their eyes frequently trying to relieve irritation. They may also have congestion that causes noisy breathing. All of these symptoms are a result of inflammation in the sinuses, throat, and upper airways caused by the infection. While sneezing may also occur with allergies, frequent sneezing combined with colored nasal discharge points to an upper respiratory infection as the likely cause.

So in summary, recurrent sneezing episodes in cats should not be ignored as they can signal a contagious URI infection that requires veterinary attention and treatment. Look for other symptoms like eye/nose discharge and take the cat to the vet promptly if an upper respiratory infection is suspected.

Other symptoms of URI in cats

Upper respiratory tract infections in cats can cause a variety of other symptoms beyond sneezing. Common additional symptoms include:

Ocular and nasal discharge – Cats with URI often have increased ocular discharge from the eyes and nasal discharge from the nose. The discharge may be clear or contain mucus and can range in color from white to yellow or greenish. Excessive tearing is also common.

Coughing/wheezing – The inflammation in the respiratory tract can cause coughing spells and wheezing as the cat has difficulty breathing normally. The cough may be dry and hacking or productive with phlegm.

Fever – Fever is a common symptom, especially in bacterial upper respiratory infections. Cats may feel warmer than usual and have a higher temperature when checked.

Loss of appetite – Sick cats often lose their appetite partially or completely. The discomfort from congestion and not feeling well leads to decreased interest in food.

In severe cases, cats with URI may become lethargic and struggle with labored breathing. Untreated infections can lead to pneumonia, so it’s important to watch for symptoms worsening and contact your vet.

When to see the vet

If your cat’s upper respiratory infection symptoms persist for more than 2-3 days without improvement, it’s time to see the vet. According to Jaax Vet, lethargy that continues beyond the first couple days of illness is a key sign it’s time for a vet visit.

You should also make a vet appointment right away if your cat has a high fever over 103°F. Fevers can be dangerous for cats if left untreated. As explained on PetMD, high fevers put extra stress on the body and may indicate a secondary infection.

Finally, if your cat stops eating or drinking with an upper respiratory infection, that’s an emergency requiring immediate vet attention. Cats can become dehydrated and malnourished very quickly when they don’t eat or drink. Getting fluids and nutrition support is critical.

The bottom line is persistent URI symptoms, high fever, or loss of appetite/drinking all signal it’s vet visit time. Don’t delay getting medical attention for your cat in any of these situations.

Diagnosing URI in cats

If a cat is showing signs of an upper respiratory infection, the vet will start with a full physical exam. They will check the eyes, ears, nose and throat for discharge, inflammation, or any other abnormalities. The vet will also feel for enlarged lymph nodes, take the cat’s temperature, and listen to the chest with a stethoscope.

The vet may take samples of the nasal discharge and eye discharge to examine under the microscope and test for bacteria or viruses. Common tests look for feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, Chlamydia, and Bordetella. A culture can also be taken to identify the specific bacteria involved (VCAA).

If the cat seems very ill or a systemic infection is suspected, the vet may run bloodwork. This allows them to check white blood cell counts and look for signs of infection. Chest x-rays are another diagnostic tool to examine the lungs and rule out pneumonia (Cornell).

Treating URI in Cats

Treatment for URI in cats often includes medications to address both the symptoms and the underlying cause of the infection.

If the vet determines the URI is caused by a bacterial infection, they may prescribe antibiotics like doxycycline or azithromycin to kill the bacteria ( Antibiotics usually need to be given for 2-4 weeks to fully resolve the infection.

Antiviral medications may be used if a viral infection is the cause of the URI. However, most viral URIs need to run their course, so treatment focuses more on managing symptoms.

To relieve congestion and make breathing easier, vets may prescribe medications like interferon or lysine. Decongestants may also be used short-term.

Cats with fever, body aches, or inflammation can be given fever reducers or anti-inflammatory medicines to relieve these symptoms.

Severely ill cats may need fluids and nutritional support if they are not eating or drinking enough on their own. Oxygen therapy may also be necessary in acute respiratory distress.

With supportive care from a vet and proper treatment, most cats recover fully from URI within 2-4 weeks.

Caring for a Cat with URI at Home

If your cat has a mild case of URI, your vet may recommend caring for them at home while monitoring their symptoms. Here are some tips for caring for a cat with URI at home:

Isolate sick cats – Cats with URI are very contagious to other cats. Keep sick cats confined away from other household pets. Give them their own room, carrier, or cage separated from other animals.

Encourage eating and fluid intake – URI can cause appetite loss and dehydration. Tempt your cat to eat with warming, smelly foods like canned tuna or meat baby foods. Make sure they have access to fresh water at all times. You can also use an unflavored electrolyte drink.

Steam therapy for congestion relief – Sit with your cat in a closed bathroom while running a hot shower to create a steam room environment. This can help loosen mucus secretions. Just make sure to monitor your cat closely and don’t overheat them.

Disinfect environment – URI is very contagious between cats. Use pet-safe disinfectants to clean any surfaces the sick cat touched. Wash bedding, bowls, and toys thoroughly. This helps prevent spreading the infection.

With supportive at-home care and monitoring by your vet, cats can recover fully from mild URI within 7-10 days. Call your vet if symptoms get worse or don’t improve within a few days of starting treatment. (

Preventing URI in Cats

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

Vaccination is key – cats should receive vaccines for the most common URI viruses like feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, and panleukopenia as kittens, with regular boosters throughout their lives. Vaccines won’t completely prevent infection, but will reduce severity of illness if a cat is exposed. Consult with your veterinarian about the recommended vaccine schedule for your cat (VCA Animal Hospitals).

Limiting exposure to infected cats or environments where infection is likely can also reduce risk. Keep cats indoors and avoid contact with stray/unvaccinated cats when possible. Don’t allow sharing of food bowls, water bowls, litter boxes between cats. Follow good hygiene practices like washing hands before/after contact with other cats (PetMD).

Chronic stress and poor nutrition can make cats more vulnerable to URIs. Providing a stress-free, enriching home environment and a complete, balanced diet supports immune health. Keep litter boxes clean and housing areas sanitary.

While URIs can’t always be prevented, following these guidelines can significantly reduce a cat’s chances of developing an upper respiratory infection.

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