Cat Got the Sniffles? How Vets Treat Feline Flu Symptoms

What is Cat Flu?

Cat flu is an upper respiratory infection caused by two main viruses – feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus 1. These viruses are highly contagious and spread easily between cats through direct contact or by sharing items like food bowls or litter trays 2. The most common symptoms of cat flu include sneezing, eye discharge, loss of appetite, lethargy, fever, and sores around the mouth. While some cats may only experience mild symptoms, others can become very ill. Cat flu is not directly transmissible to humans.

Diagnosing Cat Flu

Veterinarians diagnose cat flu by performing a physical exam and looking for common symptoms. The vet will check the cat’s eyes, nose, throat, and mouth for discharge, ulcers, and inflammation which signal an upper respiratory infection. They will listen to the cat’s breathing for any crackling or wheezing sounds. The vet may also take the cat’s temperature, as fever can accompany cat flu.

To confirm cat flu and identify the specific virus, the vet may collect samples of the nasal discharge or use a swab to take samples from the back of the throat. These samples can be tested at a veterinary laboratory to detect the presence of calicivirus, herpesvirus, Chlamydophila, or Bordetella bacteria.


Treating Mild Cases

For mild cases of cat flu, vets will often recommend some supportive care at home to help keep the cat comfortable while their immune system fights the infection:

Increase water intake – Encouraging the cat to drink more water can help thin out nasal secretions and support hydration if the cat is not eating as much due to congestion or loss of appetite. Adding extra water bowls around the home or switching to canned food can increase fluid intake.

Appetite stimulants – Cats with congestion often lose their sense of smell and taste, causing decreased appetite. Vets may prescribe appetite stimulant medication to encourage eating.

Antibiotics for secondary infections – While antibiotics don’t cure the primary viral infection, they can treat secondary bacterial infections that may arise. Commonly prescribed antibiotics for cat flu include amoxicillin and doxycycline. Blue Cross notes antibiotics may be prescribed prophylactically to prevent bacterial infections from developing.

Treating Severe Cases

Cats with severe cases of cat flu may require hospitalization for more intensive treatment and monitoring. According to Blue Cross, the main treatments for hospitalized cats with severe cat flu are:

  • Intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and flush the system
  • Anti-viral medications like interferon to inhibit viral replication
  • Antibiotics if there is a secondary bacterial infection
  • Nebulization to open airways and allow easier breathing

Vets closely monitor a cat’s eating and hydration levels, respiratory rate, and temperature when hospitalized. Oxygen therapy may be required if a cat has difficulty breathing. In very severe cases, a feeding tube may be necessary if a cat stops eating on its own. With intensive veterinary treatment, most cats can recover from a bout of severe cat flu. However, recovery times can vary from days to weeks depending on the individual case.

Preventing Spread

To prevent the spread of cat flu, it’s important to isolate infected cats from other pets in the home. The viruses that cause cat flu are highly contagious, so keeping sick cats separated will help avoid spreading it to other cats.

Be sure to place infected cats in a separate room, with their own litter box, food and water bowls, toys, bedding, etc. Avoid any direct contact between sick cats and healthy cats. The viruses can spread through sneezing, coughing, shared items like food bowls, and even from petting an infected cat and then petting another cat.

It’s also essential to disinfect litter boxes and food bowls regularly when cat flu is present. Use a diluted bleach solution or cat-safe disinfectant and wash bedding, toys, and other items the cat has contact with. This will help remove any contaminants that could harbor the virus.

Additionally, humans should wash hands frequently after interacting with a sick cat. The viruses can be transmitted through contact, so washing hands thoroughly after touching the cat, its food, toys, litter box, etc. can help prevent spreading the illness to other pets.

Quarantining infected cats, disinfecting shared items, and hand hygiene are key ways to stop cat flu from infecting more cats in a home or facility once it’s identified.

Supportive Care

Supportive care is the most important part of treating mild and moderate cases of cat flu. The vet will prescribe medications to help manage the symptoms and make the cat more comfortable, but most care will need to be provided at home. Some things owners can do to support their cat during an episode of cat flu include:

Help with grooming and eating – Cats with cat flu often have congestion that makes it hard for them to smell their food or clean themselves properly. Owners should gently wipe away any nasal discharge with a warm, wet cloth. Soft foods that are extra smelly, like canned tuna, may entice the cat to eat. Assist grooming by combing and brushing frequently.

Keep nasal passages clear – Congestion will make breathing difficult for the cat. Use saline drops or a gentle bulb syringe to loosen and remove any mucus from the nose and airways. Take care not to administer these rinses too forcefully.

Monitor closely for worsening – Cat flu symptoms can change rapidly, especially in kittens or cats with compromised immune systems. Track the cat’s appetite, energy levels, and congestion. Notify the vet immediately if breathing seems labored, the cat stops eating entirely, or other concerning symptoms appear.

Follow-up Appointments

It’s important to bring your cat back for follow-up appointments after starting treatment for cat flu. The vet will want to recheck your cat’s symptoms to confirm the treatment is working and recovery is on track. Some key things the vet will look for at follow-up visits include:

  • Breathing rate – The vet will listen to your cat’s chest and measure their breathing rate. If congestion persists, they may prescribe further medication.
  • Nasal discharge – The vet will check for any ongoing nasal discharge, which could indicate infection. Clear discharge is normal during recovery.
  • Appetite and energy – The vet will ask about your cat’s appetite and energy levels. Improving appetite and energy are good signs of recovery.
  • Weight loss – The vet will weigh your cat and check for any weight loss that could suggest anorexia or dehydration.
  • Eye discharge – The vet will examine the eyes for any ongoing irritation or discharge.

Follow-up appointments allow the vet to monitor your cat’s condition and make any needed adjustments to treatment. It’s recommended to follow your vet’s advice on when to schedule recheck exams. Alert the vet immediately if your cat’s condition seems to worsen after starting treatment.

Long-Term Outlook

With prompt veterinary attention and proper at-home care, most cats make a full recovery from cat flu. However, it can take upwards of 6 weeks for more severe cases to fully resolve[1]. During this recovery period, cats may continue to exhibit nasal discharge, congestion or eye inflammation. These symptoms should gradually dissipate over time.

In some cases, cat flu can leave behind long-term nasal issues like chronic nasal discharge or sinus inflammation. However, this is relatively uncommon if the initial infection is properly diagnosed and treated. With supportive care from their owner and follow-up vet exams, most felines bounce back completely following a bout of cat flu.


There are a few ways to help prevent cat flu in cats:

Vaccines are available that can help reduce the severity of symptoms if a cat contracts cat flu. Though the vaccines don’t fully prevent infection, they can reduce the risk of complications. There are vaccines for both the herpesvirus and calicivirus components of cat flu. Kittens should receive an initial vaccination course, followed by annual boosters. Some vets may recommend more frequent boosters for cats at high risk of exposure. Consult with your vet on the appropriate vaccine schedule for your cat (1).

Since cat flu is highly contagious, limiting a cat’s exposure to infected cats can help reduce risk of contracting the illness. Keep any new cats separated from your existing cats for at least 2 weeks to monitor for symptoms. Avoid contact with strays or cats from multi-cat households. Properly disinfect bowls, toys, litterboxes, and other items that may have been exposed to infected cats (2).

When to See a Vet

Cat flu can generally be treated at home with rest and supportive care, especially in mild cases. However, it’s important to closely monitor your cat’s symptoms and seek veterinary care if their condition seems to be worsening. There are some specific symptoms that warrant an urgent vet visit:

If symptoms persist or worsen

If your cat still shows flu symptoms after 5-7 days of home treatment, or if the symptoms seem to be getting more severe, take them to the vet right away. Worsening symptoms could be a sign of secondary infections or complications that require medication.

Difficulty breathing

Any breathing difficulty, such as open-mouth breathing, wheezing, or excessive panting, indicates a potentially serious upper respiratory infection. Cats showing signs of respiratory distress need immediate veterinary assessment and treatment.

Not eating or drinking

A sick cat who refuses food and water for more than 24 hours is at risk of liver damage. Appetite loss lasting more than a day warrants a vet visit to get nutrients and fluids into your cat via injections or a drip.

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