Cat colds - What you need to know

By Jackie Brown

So what’s a pet parent to do when they suspect their cat is suffering from the common cold? For answers, we talked to Maranda Elswick, DVM, founder of The Meowing Vet. She runs a website providing information to pet parents and veterinarians and has plenty of experience decoding cat cold symptoms to determine the proper course of treatment.

When your feline is feeling a little under the weather, or you notice tell-tale signs like sneezing, congestion, or loss of appetite, never fear. We’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about cat colds — cat cold symptoms, potential treatment options, when to call your veterinarian, and how to nurture your cat back to health.

How do cats catch colds?

“Cat colds” or “cat flu” are typically feline upper respiratory infections (URI). In most cases, cats catch colds just like people do — through exposure to a virus. According to one veterinary account, almost 90% of cat colds are caused by viruses. However, some bacteria can also cause URIs.

Once a cat is infected, it can pass the virus on to other cats, often through sneezing or coughing. In many cases, cats in shelters and boarding facilities are often prone to cat colds due to the constant interaction with other cats.

“Cats like to groom each other, so if they’re grooming and licking each other’s faces, they can also get it from direct contact,” warns Elswick. “Eating after another cat [has eaten from the bowl] can also spread these infections.”

Outdoor cats often catch colds from contact with other outdoor cats. However, even solitary indoor cats can come down with colds, despite an apparent lack of exposure.

That’s because cats don’t always develop colds immediately after exposure to a virus. Sometimes it can take months or even years for an infection to develop.

“Viruses that cause colds can lie dormant in the system,” explains Elswick, “So even if your cat has been indoors and not around other cats, in periods of stress or unrelated illness, those viruses can reactivate, causing your cat to come down with a cold.”

People can also unwittingly bring home cold viruses on their shoes or hands if they handle a sick cat or even step where a sick feral cat has been.

Fortunately, you’re unlikely to catch your cat’s cold and vice versa. Most viruses that infect one species won’t survive in a host of a different species. There’s a slight chance that URIs can be passed from cats to humans. But these infections are rare, so the risk is minimal.

6 common cat cold symptoms

According to Elswick, while most cat colds are mild, some can be more severe, especially if treatment is delayed. “In rare cases, cats can develop acute respiratory distress, get bronchopneumonia, or even die from really bad infections,” she says. “Though uncommon, it can certainly happen.”

What are the warning signs if your cat is developing a cold? Elswick recommends watching out for these symptoms:

1. Sneezing

Sneezing is one of the earliest warning signs of a developing cat cold. However, on its own, sneezing isn’t always due to a cold. If you notice your cat sneezing more than usual, that could be due to allergies, an irritant in the environment, dental issues, nasal polyps, or even something stuck in their nose, like a piece of grass.

2. Runny nose

Nasal discharge is another common symptom of a cat cold. A clear discharge coming from your cat’s runny nose isn’t a cause for concern. But if you notice green or yellow nasal discharge, that could be a sign that your cat may have a bacterial infection, which requires antibiotics.

3. Runny eyes

Cats with colds may also experience eye discharge ranging from clear and watery to thick and coloured. “Eyes can get really infected or even ulcerated,” Elswick warns. If your cat is squinting or holding their eyes closed, that could be a sign that their eyes are hurting, and you should make an appointment with a veterinarian to get your pet checked out.

4. Fever

Not all cats with colds develop fevers. But a fever (anything over 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit) is a sign that your cat’s cold is more severe, and you should seek veterinary care as soon as possible. To take your cat’s temperature, use a digital thermometer in your cat’s ear or a flexible pediatric rectal thermometer. But if your cat seems distressed or in pain when you try to take their temperature, it’s best to leave that to the professionals at your local veterinary clinic.

5. Lethargy

You may need to be a bit of a detective to pick up on some more subtle signs of a cat cold. “Cats like to hide their symptoms,” says Elswick. “So, it might just look like your cat is depressed or that they’re hiding more than usual.” These could be signs that a cold is causing your cat to feel lethargic. So, if your cat stops engaging in their usual daily routine and starts acting very tired, look for other signs that could indicate a cold.

6. Lack of appetite

Cats may stop eating or even drinking water when they are feeling unwell. “Cats are finicky, and they like to smell their food,” Elswick says. “If they can’t smell their food because their nose is all stuffy, then a lot of times they won’t eat or drink, and they can get dehydrated.”

If you do notice an increase in any of the symptoms listed above, your cat is not eating or drinking as much as usual, or they’re wheezing, gasping, or having difficulty breathing, seek veterinary care immediately.

Treating cat colds effectively

In most cases, the best solution for mild cat colds is to make your cat as comfortable as possible and let the cold run its course, which can take about a week or two.

To help ease your cat’s cold symptoms, Elswick recommends a few tried-and-true at-home remedies. One suggestion: “Run hot water in the shower to get your bathroom really steamy and then just let your cat relax in there for a while,” Elswick says. “All that humidity is going to help those nasal passages.”

For cats experiencing a lot of gunky discharge from the eyes or nose, Elswick suggests using cotton balls soaked in warm water to clean the area a few times a day, especially before trying to put in any eye drops.

If your cat’s cold symptoms worsen, visit your veterinarian to confirm the appropriate treatment plan. But don’t be surprised if your veterinarian doesn’t prescribe any medication. Even for more severe cat colds, most medications won’t help the cold resolve any faster, especially if it’s a viral infection.

In some cases, your veterinarian may prescribe oral antibiotics, and antibiotic eye drops to treat and/or prevent secondary bacterial infections that can develop during a cold. And if your cat isn’t drinking enough, your veterinarian might recommend subcutaneous fluids (fluids administered under the skin) to prevent dehydration.

For cats who get severe, recurrent colds, testing to discover which virus or bacteria is causing the infection may be in order. That way, your veterinarian can identify a more targeted treatment plan, including antiviral medications.

How to help prevent cat colds

“There’s no vaccine for the common cold in humans. Fortunately, there is a vaccine for cats,” Elswick says. “It’s the number one way of reducing feline upper respiratory infections.”

Although no vaccine is 100 percent effective, vaccinations such as the FVRCP vaccine, help reduce the frequency and severity of infection, even if cats have a virus that causes colds lying dormant in their systems. “Your cat might still get a kitty cold, but it’s not going to quite so severe as it would be if they weren’t vaccinated,” Elswick notes.

Other ways to prevent colds include keeping your cat indoors only and staying on top of preventative care at your annual veterinary checkups. While these steps may not eliminate the chances of your cat catching a cold, they can significantly reduce the risks.

Jackie Brown is a freelance writer with an extensive background in pet health care, including veterinary and pet health topics, general care, nutrition, grooming, behaviour, training, lifestyle, breeding, showing, and the human-animal bond. Jackie is a proud dog mom to one crazy miniature poodle and human mom to two crazy boys.