Cat Colds: What You Need To Know

sick cat with a cold
Colds in cats can be very dangerous if not treated properly.
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It seems my colds are going to get worse as I get older. I am just getting over one now, and in my daily reading of various veterinary journals, I just finished reading the latest information about upper respiratory infections in cats. These are similar to colds, and are common infectious diseases in pet cats. They sneeze and get runny noses, just like we do from colds, but there are some important differences in “kitty colds.”

Our colds can be caused by many different viruses, and there are new ones being discovered all the time. That’s one reason why we can’t be vaccinated against colds, and don’t become immune after having one. One or the other of only two viruses, on the other hand, cause almost all of the upper respiratory infections in cats.

One is a herpes virus. They are notorious for staying in the body for life after the initial infection. One type of herpes virus is what causes cold sores in people. The virus is dormant most of the time, but periodically becomes active and causes a cold sore, until the immune system can shut it back down again.

The herpes virus that causes “colds” in cats also stays in the body for life. After the cat recovers from the initial infection, he may intermittently spread the virus to other cats. And if he is stressed, from surgery, other diseases, or with some medications, he may have a flare up of the disease.

The other common virus that causes “colds” in cats is called a calici virus. This virus may also remain in the cat’s body for a long time after the initial infection is over, and if so, the cat will continuously shed the virus, and be contagious to other cats. Unlike herpes virus, calici virus may be completely eliminated, sometimes months or years after the initial infection. I know of nothing that can be done to make this happen.

These “colds” in cats can be more serious, especially in young kittens, than the colds we get. They can cause eye infections, and sores on the tongue. A normal cats’ mouth and nose has lots of nasty bacteria in it too, and either of these viral infections often opens the door for serious bacterial infections. Cats with “colds” often lose their appetite, and don’t drink as much water as they should. For these reasons, it is important to treat them with antibiotics, possibly eye medication, and perhaps additional fluids. Sometimes you can encourage a cat to drink more water, but fluids often must be given by stomach tube or by intravenous injection. It is nearly impossible to give nutrition intravenously, but it is easy to give food by stomach tube to a┬ácat and is an important part of treatment.

Cats who are carriers of these viruses may develop a variety of problems later in life. Recurring “colds” is only one of them. They may have a continuous “snotty nose” that responds temporarily to antibiotics, but is impossible to cure. They may develop “corneal ulcers” – serious sores on the eye. They often have chronic, progressive gum disease. This starts as a reddened area of gum around the teeth, and eventually leads to open, infected sores, and loss of teeth. Some may develop large, sore areas in the mouth.

Vaccinations will not completely assure that a cat will not become infected with these viruses, but they greatly improve the odds, and vaccinated cats do not get as sick, and are not as likely to have complications later in life. They are included in the “regular” vaccinations that your veterinarian gives to kittens, and every year to adult cats.

You know, maybe the colds we get aren’t so bad after all.


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