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Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats

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white and gray tabby cat resting under a white blanket

Can cats get colds? The answer to this question is both yes and no. Much like humans, cats can contract viruses that cause upper respiratory infections and show many of the same cold symptoms that we do.

However, it’s important to note that you can’t catch a cold from your cat since the viruses that affect felines don’t affect humans. The same holds true in reverse, which means you can’t give your cat a cold either. So, why do cats get upper respiratory infections?

Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

An upper respiratory infection in cats can look a lot like the common cold in people. Sneezing, runny nose, coughing, congestion, discharge from the eyes, fever, ulcers in the mouth or around the nose and eyes—all signs your cats may have a viral upper respiratory infection.

You may also notice that your cat starts pawing at their nose and mouth, has trouble swallowing, or makes wheezes or choking sounds while trying to breathe.

Behavioral changes, such as a loss of appetite, lethargy, or poor grooming, can also indicate an upper respiratory infection or other illness. Remember that cats have a tendency to mask or hide their symptoms when they’re not feeling well, so it’s helpful to consciously keep an eye out for signs of illnesses like these.

Because it can be difficult to notice when your cat isn’t feeling the best, it is essential that you always schedule a yearly appointment with your cat’s veterinarian. These visits are a prime opportunity for you to bring up any questions or concerns you may have about your pal’s health, behavior, and lifestyle. 

Annual check-ups additionally provide your veterinarian a chance to monitor your cat’s overall health. Regular visits allow your veterinarian to monitor any health condition your cat may have. Plus, if a new health problem does arise, then hopefully, it can be caught and treated early on.

Why Does My Cat Cough?

Coughing can occur because of the overproduction of mucous, which drains down the throat. However, just because your cat coughs does not mean they have an upper respiratory infection.

Like people, cats can cough for other reasons besides an infection, such as allergies or clearing something from the throat. If you’re concerned about your cat’s cough, see your veterinarian, who can help diagnose the problem and recommend the appropriate treatment.

On a side note, you should know that cats don’t cough because of hairballs. Hairballs develop in the digestive tract, not the respiratory system, and are vomited up. Both vomiting and coughing can cause cats to heave and make similar sounds, so it can be challenging for cat parents to tell the difference.

ginger kitten sleeping on white carpet

How to Treat Respiratory Infection in Cats

You should contact your veterinarian at the first signs of a respiratory infection in your cat because feline viruses can lead to pneumonia and other serious problems. Early diagnosis and treatment are important.

The virus is also contagious to other cats in the house, which I’ll get into more detail shortly. If you recognize that your cat is sick and begin treatment sooner, you can have a better chance of preventing it from spreading to other cats in the home.

As mentioned, viruses are the cause of most feline upper respiratory infections, and unfortunately, viruses don’t respond to antibiotics. Antibiotics are only effective for treating bacterial infections, typically indicated by yellow or green discharge from your cat’s nose.

Although viruses can’t be cured with antibiotics, your veterinarian can still help when your cat has a viral infection by treating the symptoms. For instance, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to reduce fever or administer fluids to treat dehydration. They can also make sure there aren’t any other conditions that could prevent or delay recovery from the virus.

In some cases, a cat's upper respiratory infection will run its course in about two to three weeks. During that time, you should follow your veterinarian’s recommendations and do your best to keep your cat comfortable. Here are some suggestions that can help:

  • Use a warm, wet cloth to gently clean around your cat’s eyes and nose.
  • Set up a humidifier or run a hot shower to steam up the bathroom and bring your cat in for short periods of time.
  • Offer lots of tasty cat treats or your feline’s favorite foods to help keep your cat’s appetite up. Soft canned food may be more appetizing to a sick cat—canned tuna is typically a popular choice.
  • Give your cat lots of opportunities to rest in a warm, quiet, and comfortable place.

Don’t offer your cat any medications without consulting your veterinarian first. Many human medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and sleep aids, are toxic to cats.


Although you can’t catch an upper respiratory infection from your cat, it is very contagious between felines. If you have an infected cat and other cats in the home, you should take steps to help keep the virus from spreading. For instance:

  • Make a place for the sick cat in a separate room where they can rest comfortably. Be sure to leave plenty of fresh water and check in to see how your patient is doing.
  • Put a blanket or towel at the bottom of the door to close the gap and prevent cats from smelling each other or touching paws under the door.
  • Wash your hands carefully after any interaction with your sick cat.
  • Keep an extra shirt near the door to put on when you tend to the sick cat. This can help avoid spreading the virus through your clothing.
  • Clean the food and water bowls, litter box, and carrier of the infected cat thoroughly. It would help if you also washed any bedding they may have used.

While these steps can help prevent the spread of the virus between your cats, viruses can have an incubation period of around two to 14 days. You may not see any symptoms in your cat during this time, but they could still be contagious.

Unfortunately, upper respiratory infections are quite common in cats and usually need veterinary care, such as blood work, medications, IVs, and even hospitalization in more severe cases.

As a cat parent, it may at first seem scary to think about your four-legged friend becoming sick. However, to be a well-prepared pet parent, it never hurts to familiarize yourself with the common symptoms of feline upper respiratory infection. Plus, at the first signs of your cat acting different than normal, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian. Rest assured that with just a little bit of research, you can help keep your pal in tip-top shape.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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