Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats: Everything You Need to Know

upper respiratory infection in cats

Swollen eyes, runny nose, and constant sneezing? Your kitty is most likely suffering from an upper respiratory infection, more commonly known as cat flu. A cat’s upper respiratory tract includes nose, throat, and sinus areas. These areas are highly susceptible to bacteria and virus-related infections. It makes upper respiratory infection in cats a common ailment. Fortunately, it is curable. So, read on to find out what causes an upper respiratory infection in cats, how you can cure it, and how you can prevent it. 

What Causes Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats?

While cat flu can be a result of either bacterial or viral infection, viral infections are more common. Nearly 80-90 percent of the viral cases are a result of feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus. These viruses are transmitted if your cat comes in contact with an infected cat (a sneeze or a cough). 

It is possible that a cat may not show any symptoms and yet be a carrier for the disease. Such cats may not show any signs of illness but can infect other cats. Due to cat flu’s infectious nature, cats in shelters or catteries are more prone to catching it. It is also because their immune system is not as robust as a house cat.  

Common Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infection In Cats

Periodic sneezing or coughing are two of the most prominent symptoms in cats with an upper respiratory infection. As a pet owner, you can easily detect when there is a change from normal behavior. Other possible symptoms include,

  • Congestion
  • Clear or colored nasal discharge
  • Runny nose
  • Rubbing or squinting eyes
  • Drooling or gagging
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Oral or nasal ulcers
  • Depression 

Symptoms often differ depending upon the cause of infection. However, most of these are common clinical signs across cats. Having said that, some cats might be more prone to catching cat flu than others.

Factors that can increase or lower the chances of your feline pet catching the infection include,

  • Physical condition
  • Vaccination status
  • Age

Veterinarians believe that stress plays an essential role in increasing the chances of catching an upper respiratory infection in cats. Also, certain breeds have a predisposition to developing cat flu—for instance, flat-faced cat breeds like Persians. 

Diagnosis of Upper Respiratory Infection In Cats

Clinical signs and symptoms discussed above are a characteristic way to diagnose a cat flu infection. In most cases, there is no need to find out the causative agent to treat the problem. However, if your cat is responding poorly to the treatment, then the veterinarian may conduct tests to identify the infectious agent. It is also done in the case of breeding animals.  

If it is a viral infection, then the causative virus can be identified by collecting cell samples. These samples can be eye and nose discharges. Samples can even be taken from the back of the throat. In severe cases, the veterinarian may collect samples using ‘transtracheal wash.’ It typically happens if the infection has spread to the lungs. These samples are sent to specialized veterinary labs to identify the virus. 

Additional diagnostic testing is recommended in cats with chronic upper respiratory infections. These include blood tests, skull or chest x-rays, sensitivity, and culture testing of any abnormal discharges.

How Long Does Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats Last?

The infectious agent in the infected cats has an incubation period of 10 days before your pet shows any symptoms. It is an uncomplicated infection that lasts for 1 to 3 weeks. Although the average duration of illness in only 7 to 10 days. And, during this time, the cat will be a carrier of the infection and can infect other cats. 

Cats infected with the Herpesvirus strain can become chronic carriers. Meaning, they will be prone to the disease for the rest of their lives. In fact, in some cats with a chronic upper respiratory infection, the stress can reactivate the virus. 

In the case of calicivirus, the chances of a recurring case are reduced by 50%. Also, a tiny percentage of cats remain infected with a chronic upper respiratory infection. While such cats will not show any symptoms of the illness, they will always remain a carrier of the virus and can infect other cats at any time. 

Is Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats Fatal?

As highlighted in the previous sections, upper respiratory infections in cats are usually viral infections. However, secondary bacterial infections are also common. All these can result in rhinitis or nose infection, conjunctivitis, and lung infections. 

While upper respiratory infection in cats is not classified as life-threatening, it can be fatal in some cases. A severe form of this illness can take longer to recover from, and some cats may develop permanent damage in the infected areas. 

Severe feline calicivirus can become fatal and life-threatening if it is not diagnosed and treated properly. Mostly if the illness is due to a highly virulent virus strain known as ‘virulent systematic feline calicivirus.’ Luckily, such instances are extremely rare. It is always good to begin treating any illness as soon as you suspect it. Of course, it is essential to consult a veterinarian before you embark on any mode of treatment.

Popular Treatments For Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

Your veterinarian is the best source of prescribing the appropriate method of treatment. It can include isolation, medications, nutritional support, and rest.  


Keep the infected cat indoors and away from all the other pets in the household. It is very important to follow this for a week, mainly because the upper respiratory infection is usually contagious.


It is always possible that your cat may suffer from a secondary bacterial infection as well. Therefore, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics. However, these may cause your poor pet to lose appetite and develop diarrhea and vomiting. Your cat may also show symptoms of stress if it does not like the pill. In such a case, consult your veterinarian about an antibiotic that can be administered in the form of a shot. These shots typically last for a week to 10 days. During this time, you don’t have to give a pill to your feline pet.

Eye Medication

The presence of conjunctivitis or corneal ulcers during an upper respiratory infection in your cat may require eye medication. It can be administered as eye drops or topical eye ointments. In extreme cases, your vet may also prescribe anti-viral ointments. Even though most eye drops may be available over the counter, avoid using one without consulting your vet. Some eye drops and ointments contain steroids, which can be harmful to your pet. Also, keep medications for each cat separately. 


Warm and humidified air in your cat’s nasal passage can help keep them moist. You can easily do this by switching on a humidifier where your cat sleeps or spends most of its time. You can also do this by keeping your cat in the bathroom when you shower. 

Nursing and TLC

You can nurse your cat by making sure that you clean the eye and nose discharge at least 3-4 times a day. Use a soft damp cloth or saline baby wipes to do this. It keeps the nostrils open and prevents blockage or crusting.


Your cat’s appetite might reduce due to an upper respiratory infection. Since cats have a keen sense of smell, try heating or microwaving your pet’s food so that they can smell it. Your cat must maintain a good appetite to recover. Therefore, identify the food items that it might like and splurge on those.


If your cat has contracted a severe case of upper respiratory infection, then the vet might recommend hospitalization. It is done for intravenous antibiotics and fluids. Your pet might also require nebulization, heat support, humidification, and a temporary feeding tube.

Home Remedy For Treating Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

Apple Cider Vinegar

Among all the home remedies that are available for treating your cats, apple cider vinegar has proven to be a holistic approach. From bladder blockages to upper respiratory infections, pet owners stand by apple cider vinegar as an effective home remedy.

  • Ingesting apple cider vinegar helps rectify respiratory infections. It creates an acidic environment in your cat’s digestive tract. It helps break up bladder crystals, in turn, killing any harmful bacteria.
  • You can add a one-fourth spoon of apple cider vinegar to a spoon of chicken broth or water-based cat food. Doing this at every feeding can show significant improvement in your cat’s symptoms within a few days.
  • You can also add a couple of spoons of the apple cider vinegar to a cup of your cat’s water. It is ok if your cat does not finish this entire mixture. Just a portion of it can be helpful. 
  • You can apply apple cider vinegar topically to cure skin related problems like ticks and mites. However, never use undiluted apple cider vinegar. It is abrasive and can harm your pet. Therefore dilute it before using it. Also, take a professional opinion if you are using it for the first time.

Prevention of Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats

Upper respiratory infections in cats can be prevented by implementing the following methods,


Vaccinations against the two popular cat flu causing viruses can drastically reduce the chances of your pet catching an infection. You might feel that as a house cat, your pet may not require such vaccinations. However, the illness’s ubiquitous nature makes vaccination one of the top methods to prevent upper respiratory infection in cats.

Vaccinations mainly prevent the onset of severe forms of infections. Your cat may still get infected with mild diseases from time to time. It is primarily because vaccines may not work against all strains of the virus. 

Disinfection and Barrier Nursing

This method works when there is more than one cat in your household, and you want to prevent the others from catching the infection. While vaccinations can help minimize the risk, it is equally essential to isolate a cat that shows symptoms of the flu. Apart from this, you can incorporate certain regular preventive methods like separate food bowls. Also, make it a habit to use individual litter trays if you have multiple cats living under one roof. Make sure that the areas your cats can access have easily disinfectable surfaces. In other words, keep these areas free from carpets and soft furnishings. 

However, always check with your vet before using a disinfectant. Not all disinfectants are cat-friendly. For instance, bleach-based disinfectants are effective and prevent the spread of viruses. Still, they can irritate your cat as well. Apart from this, reducing stress, maintaining hygiene, and following a regular veterinarian care regime can be helpful.