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How to Stop Rapidly-Spreading Upper Respiratory Disease in Cats

Listen as Dr. Karen Becker discusses the symptoms of upper respiratory disease in cats, as well as treatment, prevention, and the importance of ruling out a more serious underlying condition.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

Feline upper respiratory disease is a complex syndrome that can affect your kitty’s eyes, nose, sinuses, throat and mouth.

Upper respiration infections can occur in any cat, but they are more commonly seen in shelters, catteries -- cat breeding facilities where lots of kitties are housed in enclosed environments, and also in feral cat colonies.

There are several different bacteria and viruses that cause upper respiratory disease complex in felines. The two most often implicated are feline herpes 1, also known as rhinotracheitis, and calcivirus.

Other causes can be an infection with bordetella, mycoplasma, reovirus, chlamydia or pasteurella. These diseases can also develop as secondary infections to a primary infection with rhinotracheitis or calcivirus. In most cases, there is an underlying viral predisposition or etiology that causes a kitty to have recurrent upper respiratory infections.

Disease Transmission

Transmission among cats happens very easily because upper respiratory illness is highly infective.

The nasal or eye secretions of an infected kitty are passed to other cats during normal activities like grooming, hissing or spitting at one another, or even just napping together in close quarters.

Viral or bacterial secretions can also be spread on toys, food bowls, and even on humans who touch an infected cat, then touch other cats.

I make it a point to tell my clients that if they find a cat wandering along the road, for example, they should of course follow their instincts and rescue it if they can. The important thing to remember is to not allow an unknown cat immediate access to your own cats at home – or vice versa.

If you bring a new kitty home from a shelter, or you decide to foster a cat, or you find a stray hiding in your garage, or if you capture a feral cat and bring it home – you want to keep that cat separate from your own kitty for about 30 days. Thirty days should be enough time to determine whether the new little guy or gal is harboring an upper respiratory illness than can spread to the other cats in your home.

Keep your viral-free kitties healthy. If you have a viral-positive cat, by all means nurse it back to health. But until the infected kitty is able to clear the virus or keep it suppressed, it’s important to prevent infection of viral-free kitties with upper respiratory disease complex.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

A primary symptom you should look for in your own kitty or an unfamiliar cat you bring home is sneezing. In rhinotracheitis, sneezing is very common.

Other signs of an upper respiratory problem include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Nasal stuffiness
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased or complete lack of appetite

These are all common sequelae (negative aftereffects) of infection with an upper respiratory virus.

Feline upper respiratory viruses are typically diagnosed by your veterinarian with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

It’s very important to determine which virus is present, because symptoms of other serious illnesses like heart disease, asthma and certain fungal infections can mimic those of an upper respiratory infection. That’s why I strongly recommend you have your kitty diagnosed.

Treating a Cat with Upper Respiratory Infection

Typically an upper respiratory virus runs its course in from one to four weeks. During this period, your kitty won’t feel well and is apt to lose much or all of her appetite because she can’t smell her food.

Cats are interested in food because of the aroma. If your kitty is congested or her mucus membranes and sinuses are inflamed, she won’t be able to pick up food smells and may choose not to eat. Anorexia in a cat can have serious consequences, most notably the life-threatening condition known as hepatic lipidosis.

Since there’s no specific antiviral medication that can cure your kitty’s infection, it’s important to give her supportive care in the form of fluids, appetite stimulants, homeopathics, and nutraceuticals that will help her immune system overcome the virus.

In my practice I use olive leaf, arabinogalactans, lysine and homeopathic nosodes regularly and with pretty good success in helping to shorten the duration of feline upper respiratory infections.

How to Handle Recurrent Upper Respiratory Infections

If your cat has recurrent upper respiratory infections, it’s very important to consider whether he might have an underlying feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia.

This is another reason to take kitty to the vet for a definitive diagnosis – to make sure he’s viral-negative for a disease that is truly life-threatening like FIV or feline leukemia. An upper respiratory infection that keeps recurring could be a sign of immune system suppression. And while the respiratory infection by itself isn’t usually life threatening, an underlying disease process could be.

Some cats are able to clear upper respiratory viruses on their own. Other kitties become recurrent shedders of a virus, which means they never effectively clear it from their systems.

Shedders suppress viruses in their bodies. During periods of stress, the virus expresses itself in the form of illness. It might happen several times a year or much less frequently. But during biologically, physiologically stressful events in your cat’s life – perhaps a move to a new home, or changes to your work schedule and hours you’re able to be home, or the addition of a pet to the family – the suppressed virus resurfaces and causes kitty to get sick.

If you feel at times as though your cat never really got rid of an upper respiratory infection, he probably has a suppressed virus that is continuing to express itself at certain intervals.

Boosting Your Cat’s Immune System

Your goal if your pet has recurrent upper respiratory infections is to help her body keep the virus suppressed by minimizing stressful events in her life, and by keeping her immune system strong with a species-appropriate diet.

If you’re interested in feeding your cat food that will facilitate healthy, balanced immune system function, I recommend you watch my videos on how to transition your kitty from dry food to canned and from canned to raw.

I also recommend you vaccinate your kitty using extreme caution, especially if she has been diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection at any point. If your pet received a full set of kitten shots in her first year and she lives indoors, she likely has no need to be re-vaccinated as an adult.

Ask your holistic vet to run titers to determine what diseases, if any, your cat isn’t already immune to thanks to the kitten shots she received during her first year of life. The last thing you want to do is give unnecessary vaccines to your pet, and especially a cat that has been sick with an upper respiratory virus.

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