Cats can’t actually catch, or transmit the common cold virus like humans, however, cats can suffer with other conditions that cause cold-like symptoms such as a runny or congested nose, red, watery eyes, coughing and sneezing. The most common cause of cold-like symptoms in cats is cat flu. Cat flu is usually caused by one of two types of virus, either the herpes virus (which can cause eye ulcers) and calicivirus (which can cause oral ulcers).
Signs and Symptoms
Common, mild symptoms include sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes. These usually resolve with no further treatment. However, cats with a weaker immune system can develop more serious symptoms including;
- Thick, yellowish nasal discharge
- Discharge from the eye(s)
- Lack of appetite
How is Cat Flu Diagnosed?
Cat flu can be diagnosed by taking swabs and looking for the virus. Although there is no specific treatment for the virus, it may be helpful in catteries and multi-cat households to know if a cat is suffering from cat flu.
How is Cat Flu Spread?
When a sick cat sneezes, countless minute droplets containing the infectious agents are released into the air. Virus particles can also be shed in nasal and eye discharge and in saliva. These droplets can remain in the air for some time and considerable distance so can spread quickly through large cat populations. The infection can also contaminate things like bedding material and food bowls. Cats can carry the virus and infect other cats without always suffering from the disease.
How Can Cat Flu be Prevented?
Cats can be vaccinated against the main forms of cat flu. However, there are lots of different strains of the virus, and as with human flu, the vaccine is not effective against them all. The vaccines routinely used in the UK are only active against viral cat flu. Although not routinely offered, vaccines are available for the bacterial forms of cat flu. You may wish to discuss this with your vet. Your cat will need to be fully up to date with the routine vaccinations before going into a cattery. Even if your cat has had cat flu, it is likely to have only been infected with one of the viruses so will still be susceptible to the other, so it is important that it is still vaccinated.
It is important to note that some kittens can already be infected with cat flu before being vaccinated. Infected mothers can infect their kittens without showing any symptoms themselves. The kittens either get flu or become symptom-free carriers. It can take up to two weeks for flu symptoms to appear so some kittens will already be infected with the virus at the time of vaccination.
Cats are more likely to suffer more severe symptoms if their immune system is weakened, which can happen following neutering, moving house, or any other stress. Using a hormone supplement before any planned stressful events can help to boost the immune system, lowering the risk of more severe symptoms.
What Are the Long-term Consequences of Cat Flu?
Following infection, many cats are left as carriers, which means they do not have any symptoms but are potentially infectious to others. Some carrier cats occasionally have minor symptoms for a few days, often following stressful events. Others may be more unlucky and suffer a permanently runny nose. This happens because the delicate nasal lining has been damaged, causing repeated bacterial infections. Carriers are only infectious to other cats when they are shedding the virus. Around 80% of cats infected with the herpes virus become carriers for life, but only shed the virus during periods of stress. With the calicivirus, cats usually secrete the virus for several months after the initial infection.
How Can Cat Flu be Treated?
Once a cat has been infected with cat flu, it will be a carrier for life – there is no treatment available. However, some of the symptoms can be relieved, often in similar ways to a human cold.
Vitamins and Natural Remedies
It is unclear whether vitamins or natural remedies can help a cat with cold-like symptoms, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that vitamin C, apple cider vinegar, and Lysine may help to prevent or treat some viruses.
It is important not to unduly stress your cat, particularly when ill, but if you can encourage your cat to spend some time in a steamy bathroom, it can help to open their airways and help them to breathe easier. Alternatively, you could place a vaporizer near your cat with some Vicks VapoRub added to it, as you would for a newborn baby.
Cats like to keep warm, especially when feeling under the weather. Heat pads are not recommended as they can cause burns, however, some blankets or a hot water bottle can help to bring some relief.
- Food and water
It is important for your cat’s recovery that they eat and drink regularly, but they may lose their appetite, due to losing their sense of smell. If this happens, you can consider some special treats such as tuna, liver or chicken to tempt them to eat. Dry food can be soaked in warm water and canned food can usually be heated slightly which brings out natural odours in the food, making it more palatable to the cat.
Cats with flu can get dehydrated. To check if your cat is dehydrated, hold a piece of the skin on the back of their neck between your thumb and forefinger for five seconds. When you release it, it should snap back to its original position in less than a second. If it takes longer than this, it is usually an indication that your cat is dehydrated. If it takes more than three seconds to return to its usual position, your cat should be checked out by a vet.
You can also check if your cat is dehydrated by looking at their gums. They should ideally be a soft pink colour and wet and slippery. If they feel sticky or tacky to touch, your cat is probably dehydrated.
Most flare-ups of cat flu resolve without treatment and your cat can remain at home. More severe infections may require antibiotics. Cats not eating or drinking may also require additional treatments, including hospitalization in some cases for fluids and appetite stimulation. If you are at all concerned, you should contact your vet immediately.
- Home Remedies for Cat Colds, PetMD
- Does your cat have a cold?, Pet Plan
- Cat Flu, Blue Cross For Pets