Sick Cats Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections

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When a cat sneezes it could have a health problem known as an Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. Learn about the causes, treatments, and prevention.

Upper Respiratory Tract Infection - URTI, characterized by sneezing and watery eyes, is a frequent concern, often seen in domestic cats, URTI is quite common in the winter and in cats that come from animal shelters. URTI is much like a cold, or flu, in humans and can occasionally develop into pneumonia, particularly in kittens and older animals.

A few cats will suffer from chronic (re-occurring) Upper Respiratory Tract Infections throughout the year, mostly manifested by sneezing fits only. Such cats should be kept indoors only or they will spread their germs to other cats.

Symptoms of URTI

  • Sneezing is often the first, and most common, symptom, and by itself is really no concern for alarm, however cats who are sneezing should be kept indoors and away from other cats, especially away from kittens and older cats.
  • Watery eyes, of concern when they become crusted over.  It is not uncommon for sick cats to have their eyes sealed shut by this crust.
  • Nasal Discharge, which is of concern and especially so if it becomes bloody.
  • Lack of appetite, even refusing to eat canned food.
  • Lethargy.
  • Conjunctivitis (pinkeye) an indication of Chlamydia bacteria.
  • Drooling.
  • Open mouth breathing, (panting) cause for immediate attention.
  • Fever. Anything over 103 F (in a resting cat) when temperature is taken rectally is cause for concern.
  • Ulcers in the mouth and around the nose and eyes, cause for attention and may make eating difficult.

sick kitten You can see this kitten is not looking well.

Causes and Risk Factors

There are a few viruses and bacteria that can cause an Upper Respiratory Tract Infection in cats. The most common viral causes are feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV) and feline calicvirus (FVC). The most common bacteria responsible is feline chlamydia (not the same as human chlamydia).

Cats living close together, especially in stressed situations, can easily spread the organisms, direct contact is not necessary. As such cats in pet shelters, stores, and kennels are often exposed to URTI's.

Cats who are stressed, young, underfed, have lower resistance and often become very ill.

Feral cat populations can spread the disease.

People who have been exposed to sick cats can carry the virus home on their clothing to their own cats.

Plastic food, and water, bowls cannot be properly disinfected and can carry bacteria and viruses.

The disease can be airborne and viruses can live on uncleaned surfaces for up to 6 months.

Cats may become sick up to 10-14 days after exposure.


If the cat is just sneezing, it should be kept indoors, away from other cats.

Feeding extra canned food (chicken preferably, but not chunks in gravy) in addition to allowing the cat free access to its normal dry food. You might try adding warm water to the food, making it more soup-like, especially if the cat is having difficulty eating. Feed small amounts of canned, but several times a day.

If the cat is not eating, it can be encouraged to eat more by placing the food in the microwave for a few seconds to make the food smell better, as a cat with a stuffy nose may have problems smelling.

If the eyes are shut with gunk, wipe them with a warm, moist, cloth.  Use water only unless instructed otherwise by a veterinarian.

If the cat has more than one symptom a trip to the vet is important. Especially if it is a young kitten, or older cat.

The vet will want to determine if the cause is bacterial or viral before suggesting a treatment. If they send the cat home for treatment it is very important the owner monitor its condition and call the veterinarian if symptoms worsen.  Use all the medication even if the cat appears to get better.

Water should be offered in a stainless steel, or ceramic bowl, it should be refreshed several times daily. Monitor the cat for drinking. In severe cases a cat may be given water with a syringe or eye dropper, being careful not to shoot too much water into its mouth that the water goes into the lungs.

Keep the cat indoors, isolated from other cats. Treat them last, after taking care of any healthy cats first. Change clothing and wash hands afterwards.

Young kittens may require a hot water bottle in their beds and should be confined to a small room to encourage, and allow, rest.

In dry climates a humidifier may make breathing easier. 

Keep sick cats in a warm (but not hot) room, one with no drafts.

sick cat

Sick cat, resting, photo from Flickr.


Most cats will recover with no treatment if their only symptom was sneezing, and they were kept inside, and well fed.  The sneezing will usually pass after a couple of weeks.

Cats who have other symptoms such as discharge from their eyes or nose, might recover on their own but certainly do better with veterinary attention.

Cats who have progressed to the point they have blood from their nostrils or are panting, very definitely need veterinary care.


There are only a vaccinations available but they are not 100% effective.

Use stainless steel, or ceramic bowls, never plastic.

When buying any previously used cat equipment, such as a carrier, wash it thoroughly with bleach.

Keep all cats indoors only, especially in areas with a lot of stray, or feral cats.

Change your clothes and wash your hands after being around sick cats, as at a friends home, or if around unfamiliar cats.

Use bleach to clean areas in the home where a sick cat has been.

Do not bring stray, or unvaccinated cats, into your home or expose your cats to them.


When getting a new cat, be sure it comes vaccinated and with a 14 day health guarantee.

Even after recovery cats can still shed the organisms responsible, as such be very careful when introducing a new pet to your home where one who has been sick resides. It is better to select a mature cat rather than a very young kitten.

URTI is not contagious to humans, nor can a cat catch a cold from a human.

Other Cat Articles

Why is my Cat not using its Litter Box?

Should Cats be allowed Outdoors?

Should Cats be fed Vegetarian, or Vegan, Diets?

Good News for Cat Lovers who have Allergies


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