Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infections

Source: PetWave, Updated on July 16, 2015
Upper Respiratory Infections

Introduction

Regardless of the inciting cause, the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in cats are remarkably similar and can range from mild to very severe. The feline calicivirus tends to be associated with mild upper respiratory illness, while feline herpesviral infections are usually more servere.

Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats

There normally are two distinct phases in the course of feline upper respiratory tract illness: an acute phase, followed by a chronic phase. The symptoms, and their severity, can vary greatly, especially during the acute phase. Observable signs typically appear within two to three weeks after exposure to the infectious organism and reach peak severity about ten days later. They typically include:

  • Sneezing (repeated bouts; severe)
  • Eye redness, irritation and inflammation (conjunctivitis)
  • Serous ocular discharge (watery secretions from the eyes)
  • Serous nasal discharge (watery secretions from the nostrils)
  • Apathy
  • Lethargy, listlessness
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite (inappetence; anorexia)

By the fourth or fifth day of acute illness, cats typically develop some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Mucoid ocular discharge (slimy, goopy, thick secretion from the eyes)
  • Mucoid nasal discharge (slimy, goopy, thick secretion from the nostrils)
  • Purulent ocular discharge (secretion from the eyes containing pus)
  • Purulent nasal discharge (secretion from the nostrils containing pus)
  • Nasal congestion
  • Open-mouth breathing (from plugged nasal passages)
  • Difficulty breathing; respiratory difficulty; shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Audible wheezing; increased airway sounds
  • Coughing spasms
  • Corneal ulceration
  • Severe eye redness/conjunctival swelling and irritation
  • Oral ulceration and erosion (stomatitis; especially of the gums, lips, soft palate and tongue; often starting as blisters [vesicles] that rise and then rupture)
  • Unwillingness to eat (due to pain; not from loss of appetite)
  • Unwillingness to drink (due to pain; not from loss of appetite)
  • Weight loss (sometimes to the point of emaciation)
  • Excess salivation/drooling (pytalism)
  • Facial and limb swelling/edema (uncommon)
  • Vomiting (uncommon)
  • Diarrhea (uncommon)
  • Dehydration
  • Collapse
  • Coma
  • Death

The chronic phase of infectious upper respiratory disease in cats is called the “carrier state.” Most but not all cats infected with feline herpesvirus and/or feline calicivirus become chronic carriers of the viral organisms after they recover from clinical signs of illness. When the cat’s immune system is weakened – such as by excitement, illness, pregnancy, lactation, anesthesia, surgery, veterinary visits, car rides, introduction of new pets, changes in household personnel or routines or other causes of stress – the viral organisms can rapidly reproduce and be shed in oral and nasal secretions. The affected cat may or may not develop mild signs of respiratory illness, but they are ongoing sources of infection to other cats.

Cats at Increased Risk

Cats housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions have a heightened chance of developing upper respiratory tract infections. Free-roaming cats also have an increased risk of contracting an upper respiratory tract infection, as do very young kittens and unvaccinated adults.

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