Feline Upper Respiratory Disease

The Likely Suspect When the Nose Flows

It took half a minute at the local SPCA for Gwendolyns heart to be won by a shy calico kitten huddled in her litter box. The proud new kitty caretaker was prepared for some psychological issues, but by the following week, when Fuzzball was finally spayed and released, there were nasal issues as well.

Upper respiratory disease, proclaimed the veterinarian, after taking one look at this drooling feline addition to the family. Gwendolyn spent the next week administering antibiotics, wiping the kittens nose, and enticing her to eat, all the while gaining quite a familiarity with cat mucus and kitten food. Good thing youre cute, she informed Fuzzball. So notoriously contagious is feline upper respiratory disease (URD) that her story is far from unique.

Narrowing down the cause
If your cat, like Gwendolyns, is young and hails from a shelter, virus-induced URD is by far the likeliest suspect in cases of nasal discharge and is most frequently caused by either feline herpesvirus or feline calicivirus, notes Ann Harris, DVM, a private practitioner at Rockacres Veterinary Hospital in Manlius, New York. But other non-infectious causes of nasal discharge in cats of all ages may include allergies, dental disease, facial trauma, cancer, or simply a foreign object in the nose. To narrow down the cause, your veterinarian should ask about your cats history. For example, is your cat an outdoor cat? Infection with either the feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus could suppress the immune system, making her more prone to URD, explains Harris.

The veterinarian will also do a facial, oral, and physical exam, including listening to the cats chest and checking the eyes, nose, and ears for discharge, parasites, and polyps. Facial swelling may indicate a serious underlying problem, such as cancer.

Difficulty eating may indicate dental disease. The quantity and quality of the nasal discharge and where its coming from can also be a diagnostic clue. A yellow or greenish discharge indicates that a secondary bacterial infection is present; a clear discharge means that hasnt yet happened, says Harris. Bloody discharge may suggest cancer, a fungal disease, or a foreign body. These latter conditions tend to affect only one nostril while viral URD often causes discharge from both nostrils.

Severe cases of nasal discharge might warrant blood tests, tissue biopsy, discharge cultures, head X-rays, or examination of the nasal passages under anesthesia, says Harris.

Vaccinating against infectious URD
A diagnosis of viral URD is both good and bad news. The good news is that it is usually not life threatening. The bad news? Because its sometimes impossible to reverse the damage viruses inflict on the lining of the nose, the cat may be prone to recurring episodes for the rest of her life, says Harris. In such cases, treatment is largely supportive – chronic URD is managed, rather than cured. The cat may need occasional fluids if she is dehydrated from not eating or drinking. She may be more comfortable in a humid environment, like the bathroom when youre showering, or in a room with a humidifier. Feline decongestants and a calm, low-stress environment may also help, Harris recommends. Since they cannot smell their food, cats with nasal discharge often have poor appetites and may lose weight. You can encourage such cats to eat by feeding strong smelling, warmed-up foods. When symptoms are severe, Harris prescribes antibiotics such as Clavamox if the cats caretakers are willing and able to medicate their cats.

Believing strongly in the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, some shelters are vaccinating cats against viral URD early, using special vaccines administered as nose and eye drops. If you are adopting a cat from a shelter, inquire about such vaccinations. If you havent already lost your heart, look for a kitten that is not exhibiting teary eyes, runny nose, or raspy breathing.

While most kittens will simply outgrow these sniffles as their immune system matures, some do go on to have chronic disease, notes Harris. So, before bringing a new kitten home, have her examined and vaccinated by your veterinarian, and be sure your current cats are up to date on their vaccinations as well. Its a good idea to keep the new cat quarantined in a room in your house for at least a week or two, both for medical and social reasons.

Gwendolyn reports that her Fuzzball is now clean, dry, eating like a piglet, and a joy to have around! With just a little help from caring cat lovers and veterinarians, our feline companions will quite literally be able to keep their noses clean.