Like us humans, our pets can also suffer from colds. The typical symptoms of colds like coughing, sniffles and tiredness are mostly the consequence of a harmless viral infection, with the pathogens of the cat cold complex playing a primary role. The latter often emerges in animal shelters or households with several young cats. Some of the pathogens can have a serious impact on a cat's health, which is why a thorough diagnosis and effective treatment are very important.
Colds in Cats
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How does my cat end up with a cold?
When we talk of a cold, we are mostly referring to a viral infection. Since many different viruses lead to coughing, sniffles and such, the most common viral pathogens in cats are outlined in the following list:
- Feline herpesvirus (FeHV-1) or feline viral rhinotracheitis: this pathogen is part of the cat cold complex and is found all over the world. Young cats in particular are affected. It also affects large cats and is transmitted by direct exchange of nasal or eye discharge. Once a cat has been infected, it carries the virus in its body for the rest of its life. However, whether a cat suffers from a cold depends on the status of its immune system. Weak animals like young or sick cats therefore suffer more often from feline viral rhinotracheitis than healthy cats.
- Feline calicivirus (FCV): this virus is also part of the cat cold complex. In contrast to the feline herpesvirus, however, it is also transmitted via indirect contact in addition to via direct contact with respiratory tract secretions. Contaminated objects and clothing play an important role in terms of spreading the virus, therefore animal shelters or other households with multiple cats are affected particularly often.
- Chlamydophila felis: this bacterium also joins the viral pathogens of the cat cold complex. It typically causes partly purulent conjunctivitis as well as inflammation of the bronchi (bronchitis).
- Mycoplasma felis: this bacterium too is adapted to the cat's respiratory tract and leads to colds.
How do I recognise that my cat has a cold?
The symptoms of colds in cats are very similar to those that we humans experience. Hence, the aforementioned pathogens lead to the following symptoms:
- The general condition can be unaffected to severely diminished.
- Fever, reduced appetite, weight loss, dehydration.
- Coughing, sneezing and snuffles to shortness of breath.
- Nasal and eye discharge (as part of conjunctivitis).
- Feline calicivirus often emerges in the form of small inflammatory ulcers, which can be very painful.
- The weakening of the immune system leads to increased secondary bacterial infections, which can make common colds much worse and make them purulent.
- Depending on the severity of the illness and the cat's immune system, severe inflammations can affect the respiratory organs. These lead to an acute deterioration of the general condition and accompanying symptoms, which can be life-threatening to the health of the cat.
My cat has a cold – what are the diagnostic measures?
Most colds that cats suffer from are generally mild and therefore don't need any intensive veterinary treatment. However, if the illness symptoms don't disappear after a few days or flare up again, it's recommended to see a vet.
The vet can gather important information about how the cold came about during the interview with the owner. Information about the vaccination status, origin and cat's current environment can exclude potential differential diagnoses.
During the owner interview, what are known as the cat's vital parameters will also be examined in order to determine its current state of health. The most important vital parameters include the following:
- Respiratory and heart rate
- The condition of the mucous membranes (by pressing on the mouth mucosa)
- Water supply (by pulling up a skin fold)
- Internal body temperature
Finally, the special examination of the respiratory tract can commence. A viral and possibly bacterial infection is suspected due to the typical cold symptoms. Hence, the vet takes nasal or eye swabs, which can be tested for the presence of pathogens as follows:
- Direct detection: cultivation of viral pathogens in a cell culture or bacterial germs in culture media as well as by means of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
- Indirect detection: antibody tests (proof of an immunological reaction).
Colds in cats: what are the treatment options?
If your cat has a cold and needs treatment, it always involves combatting the underlying causes in a targeted manner as well as symptomatic treatment in support. Depending on the pathogen, treatment can also be made up of different measures:
- Anti-viral treatment: anti-virals (medication) such as Aciclovir or interferon
- Secondary bacterial infections: antibiotics after resistance testing (as an eye ointment or tablets)
- Sufficient fluid consumption: infusions, wet food
- Medication to combat coughing (antitussives) or inhalation
- Supporting the immune system: vitamin preparations
What is the prognosis?
Most colds affecting cats are quite harmless and disappear as quickly as they arrive. Nevertheless, a chronic or recurring cold shouldn't be taken lightly, because some viral infections can lead to severe health problems or even death if not treated properly.
How can I prevent my cat from suffering from a cold?
In general, both viral and bacterial infections can be prevented through the following prophylactic measures:
- Regularly cleaning food bowls and the litter box (e.g. with high temperatures or special cleaning products).
- Avoiding contact with sick cats.
- Protective vaccinations against some cat cold complex pathogens are available (e.g. FeHV-1, FCV, chlamydophila felis). Although they don't prevent an infection in some cases, they do prevent the outbreak of the disease: first injection after 8 weeks of age, second injection after 12 weeks, third injection after 16 weeks, annual booster vaccination.