Treatment of upper respiratory tract infections in cats typically involves well-managed supportive care and possibly administration of oral medications. The goals of therapy are to control secondary bacterial infections, maintain the cat’s weight and hydration and keep the cat as comfortable – for as long - as possible.
Cats with upper respiratory tract infections should be isolated from other cats for at least three to four weeks, to prevent contagion. All bowls, bedding, crates, toys and other things that an infected cat has come into contact with should be thoroughly and regularly washed with a 1:32 dilute solution of bleach-to-water. People who touch an infected cat should be especially attentive to good hygiene, including washing their hands with soap and warm water and changing and laundering their clothes and shoes on a regular basis.
Most affected cats can be treated at home. This is preferable to in-hospital care, at least from the cat’s perspective. At-home supportive care for cats with upper respiratory infections is very similar to how we care for people with “the flu.” The cat should be in a calm, warm and quiet environment that promotes rest and relaxation. A home vaporizer will improve humidification and help to keep the cat’s nasal passages moist. Some authorities recommend a cool steam vaporizer rather than a warm vaporizer. Placing the cat on a dry surface in a steamy bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes several times daily is also helpful. Many owners bring their cat into the bathroom with them while they shower or bathe.
Supportive treatments for upper respiratory infections in cats also include keeping the cat in a confined, stress free and comfortable in-home environment. The cat should be in a room that has a comfortable temperature. Free access to fresh water is important, and the cat’s diet should be highly palatable. The cat’s eyes and nose should be routinely cleaned if the cat is experiencing eye or nose discharge. Cats with respiratory illness usually have runny noses and goopy eyes. Owners should gently cleanse their cat’s eyes and nose with warm water on a soft tissue or cotton ball as frequently as necessary to remove the infectious secretions. They should dispose of those tissues or cotton balls in a place that is reliably inaccessible to other animals.
Cats with upper respiratory tract infections often have difficulty eating, because they cannot smell their food. In addition, when they develop oral ulcers, affected cats frequently refuse to eat or drink due to pain. This can cause dramatic weight loss and profound weakness. Owners should feed highly palatable foods that have a strong, pungent smell, such as canned tuna, canned mackerel or strained meat baby food. Some cats will need to be force-fed either by hand or through a tube. High-calorie nutritional paste supplements are also available and can be recommended or provided by a veterinarian. If a cat becomes dehydrated during its illness, subcutaneous or intravenous fluids can be administered by the owner or by a veterinarian. Water can also be given using a needleless syringe or eye dropper.
Broad-spectrum oral antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial causes of upper respiratory tract infections in cats. Decongestant drops may be recommended to shrink swollen nasal membranes. Topical ointments and artificial tears are available for cats whose eyes are affected. Topical or systemic antiviral drugs may also be appropriate. Appetite stimulants can help cats that are anorexic, and pain medications (analgesics) can help cats with oral sores. The amino acid, L-lysine, can be helpful to reduce the severity of respiratory infections in cats that test positive for feline herpesvirus.
Most cats with upper respiratory tract infections have a good to very good prognosis, if they receive prompt and effective treatment. Young kittens, and cats with especially virulent viral infections, have a more guarded prognosis. Infected adults rarely die from upper respiratory tract infections. Unfortunately, the death rate in very young kittens can approach fifty percent.