Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Respiratory Illness in Cats

by Jazmin Murphy   February 16, 2021

Table of Contents

At some point in every cat owner’s life, they have to face the reality that their cat is susceptible to illnesses like all other domestic pets. Among the most widespread are respiratory diseases in cats like URI (feline upper respiratory infection) and FVR (feline viral rhinotracheitis).

What are the signs, symptoms, and causes of respiratory illness in cats? These issues are most often identified by the cat coughing and sneezing, nasal and eye discharge, changes in appetite, nose and mouth ulcers, and significant behavioral abnormalities. They’re caused by exposure to harmful bacteria and viruses but can be picked up from sick cats.


Since so many people brush these diseases off as a “cold” or an insignificant passing condition, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t take them seriously at first glance. However, some respiratory sicknesses can stick with your cat for a lifetime or worsen with medical attention. See the guide below to identify the problem as quickly as possible and take action to protect your kitty’s wellbeing. 

What is URI in cats?

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) is one of the most common illnesses that affect cats of all ages and breeds. However, past studies suggest that young (ages 4-11 months) and elderly cats are the most vulnerable to infection.


In short, feline URI is essentially your cat’s version of a cold. Unfortunately, it’s not always this simple. The problem can become fatal in some cases, especially if there is substantial damage inflicted on the upper airway (e.g., the nose, sinuses, and windpipe). 


Your cat can become infected with a URI by coming into contact with a sick cat’s saliva, tears, or nasal secretions. Other seemingly harmless activities like sharing food and water bowls, litter boxes, and grooming one another can also be causes of URI in cats. 


So, make sure to quarantine any cat you suspect to be infected with a URI. Sicknesses like those listed below or fungal infections can lead to a URI, too.

  • Bordetella

  • Chlamydia

  • Feline calicivirus

  • Feline herpesvirus

It’s best to pay extra attention to newly adopted cats since infection rates can be surprisingly high in shelters. Research has shown that URI prevalence in shelters can range anywhere from as low as 3% up to a stunning 55%. 


So, before you decide to adopt, request a tour of the shelter, and note the cats’ housing conditions, facility management standards, vaccination routines, and how many cats they keep in the facility at once. All these factors contribute directly to the prevalence of URI, so if you find the shelter lacking in these areas, it may be best to move on and find a new kitty elsewhere. 


(You might also want to ask the shelter how often they bring in or transfer new cats. Stressful events – like being transported to a new home or facility – can “reactivate” URI. So, a previously clean shelter may now be a hot spot for URI due to a new cat coming in and shedding the virus.)

Recognize (and Prevent) the Symptoms of Feline URI

Now that you know what the disease is and how it arises, you should know what to look for if your cat comes down with a URI. It’s imperative that you either refer to this list in times of doubt or keep these signs in the back of your mind. Holding the info on-hand will help you take swift action when your kitty needs veterinary attention. 


The primary symptoms of a feline URI are as follows:

  • Cat coughing and sneezing

  • Nasal ulcers, discharge, or congestion

  • Mouth ulcers

  • Eye discharge or irritation (lots of rubbing or scratching eyes, squinting)

  • Drooling

  • Lethargy

  • Depression

  • Hoarseness

If one or more of these symptoms arise and remain persistent, it’s best to check in with your vet right away for blood and electrolyte tests and more. Still, the best safety net is prevention. To reduce or eliminate the risk of your cat getting a URI, keep it indoors in a stress-free environment. Keeping their vaccines up-to-date is also a reliable method of maintaining your cat’s overall health.

What to Know About Feline Herpes Virus

You might know this condition as the feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), one of the handful of diseases your cat is vaccinated against each year. This is a mind-blowingly widespread sickness. As much as 97% of house cats face exposure to FVR at least once in their life. Unfortunately, about 80% of those kitties end up getting stuck with the condition throughout the rest of their lives. 


Like feline URI, this illness can affect cats in all age groups. However, kittens are the most at-risk, especially around the age of five weeks old. Pregnant kitties should be monitored closely, too, as their immunity might fluctuate and increase their susceptibility to FVR. 


The spread of FVR happens most frequently in multi-cat households and boarding kennels. The culprits in both situations? Low-quality maintenance and stuffy, enclosed spaces. When there are too many cats in a facility and the caretakers lack the appropriate cleaning and feeding routines, the infection can spread like wildfire. Stress from overcrowding in these cases increases each cat’s risk of getting sick. 


FVR mostly affects cats’ noses and throats, although most kitties hardly show any symptoms at all. (This is good and bad, as you don’t necessarily want your cat to have to live with constant sneeze attacks, an unhealthy appetite, and other symptoms. 


However, this also makes it easier to spread to other cats, since you can’t see the signs of the initial infection. For these kitties, it’s best to take preventative action by getting regular veterinary checkups and vaccinations. 

Know the Symptoms of Feline Herpes Virus

Because of FVR’s prevalence, you should always remain vigilant and know what to look for, in case your fur-baby does manifest signs of illness. Here are a few examples how your cat might feel and behave when living with FVR:

  • Sneeze attacks

  • Watery or mucous nasal discharge 

  • Swelling in the eyes, which can cause blurred vision and pain

    • Swelling mostly affects the conjunctiva (thin tissue layer on the eyelid) and cornea (outermost lens layer)

  • Eyelid muscle spasms

  • No sense of smell

  • Irregular or absence of appetite

  • Fever

  • Loss of energy

  • Pregnant cats may lose their babies

It’s critical that you get your cat to a veterinarian as soon as possible if you observe one or more of these health problems. 


Proactive approaches to managing FVR entail vaccinations, especially for kittens. It’s best to start their booster shots at nine and 12 weeks old, then follow up with another one year later, and continue on an annual schedule. Cats that spend their lives indoors are considered low-risk, so after the first set of boosters (including the first annual booster), you can wait every three years instead. 

Maintaining Your Cat’s Respiratory Health

Respiratory illnesses can creep up when you least expect them. They’re not always the result of risky interactions with other kitties but can occur due to domestic conditions instead. On the bright side, this means that you have lots of options to protect your cat’s health, mainly in the form of precautionary action. 


Some examples of how you maintain your cat’s overall respiratory health are below:

  • Give your cats a safe play area. You may wonder, What does playing have to do with respiratory problems? Hazardous home environments increase the risk of trauma to the airways by falling or other routes of impact. Giving your cats a safe means of entertainment such as a life-like flipper fish or an interactive tunnel and bed will keep them healthy and out of trouble.
  • Clean consistently. Maintaining a clean house is crucial for your and your pets’ safety. This can affect so many aspects of daily life, from successful potty training to the lowered risk of respiratory infections discussed here. As mentioned previously, poor cleaning is one of the leading causes of breathing problems and diseases in cats. You can’t afford to ignore this duty.
    • Note: Make sure that your cleaning products are pet-friendly. Another cause of the respiratory issues discussed here is exposure to toxic substances. 

  • Keep a calm house. Cats that live under excessive stress levels are far more likely than other animals to fall ill. Provide your kitties an outlet for pent-up energy and frustration with fun things like a pet cat mice game or scratchboard to make them feel at home and remind them they belong.  

It can be scary to watch your cat deal with uncomfortable (or even painful) sicknesses. It’s so much worse when the problem targets such a sensitive thing as their respiratory system. 


By learning about the most common infections in cats and their respective signs and symptoms, you can stay one step ahead in protecting your fur-baby’s health throughout their life. 


About the Author

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy began writing informal scientific content on nature and animals in 2015. Four years later, she launched her freelance career as a digital content and copywriter. This work merges her academic perspective, rooted in her B.S. Zoology, and professional experience as a veterinary tech, university research assistant, and more with relevant marketing, SEO, and engagement techniques across various industries. Jazmin now covers pet care, pest control, cannabis, outdoor recreation, STEM research and news, and product reviews across several niches.


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