The first time you hear your cat sneeze, you may wonder whether she has a cold or is allergic to something in your house. For many, the sound of the sneeze strikes fear into their hearts because although upper respiratory infections are common, there are very few effective medications to treat these illnesses, which are primarily caused by viruses. Home nursing care may well be the best and most effective treatment for your cat.
Feline herpesvirus (the cause of viral rhinotracheitis) and feline calicivirus are the best-known feline respiratory viruses.
The signs caused by these viruses often overlap; in fact, its usually impossible to tell which virus is causing the infection unless special diagnostic tests are performed. Regardless, herpesvirus is more likely to cause a watery to pus-like discharge from the eyes and nose, with lots of sneezing. The virus may also cause serious damage to the eyes. Calicivirus may cause ulcers in the mouth and on the nose, as well as sneezing and discharge from the nose and eyes. Some strains of calicivirus can cause pneumonia and other diseases. Cats infected with either virus will usually run a fever, and some cats may be infected with both viruses. Bacteria often take advantage of an infected cats debilitated state, resulting in secondary bacterial infections that can contribute to the cats illness. Because the viruses spread quickly, it is especially important for households of multiple cats to treat promptly the first cat that gets sick, keeping her in a separate room if possible.
Home Nursing Care
Start right off with basic, simple care. Cleaning your kittys eyes and nose regularly throughout the day is a big help. Use cotton balls or a clean washcloth dampened with warm water to wipe away any discharge. However, if you use a cloth, only use it once, and then wash in hot water and bleach. Dont use a cloth on more than one cat or you could spread infection. Cotton balls or gauze pads should also be used once and tossed.
Clean off the crusts around the eye and flush the eye with artificial tears to flush out any virus or bacteria. With rhinotracheitis infections, your cat could develop keratitis – a serious condition affecting the clear surface of the eye, the cornea. The eye may look bluish, and your cats vision is affected. If this develops, your veterinarian should be consulted. Despite excellent care, some cats will end up with damaged tear ducts, may have mild crusts forever, or even lose the affected eye.
Your cat also needs to breathe. Cleaning the discharge off the nose helps. But feline caretakers can do even more. Put your cat in a room with a cool-air vaporizer or take her in the bathroom while you shower. Allow the warm moist air to fill the room (dont turn on the exhaust fan) and loosen up the debris in her nasal passages and sinuses. Plan to re-wipe her nose after this.
If your feline friend is very congested, there are pediatric nasal decongestants that often work. But before you use any product, check with your veterinarian to learn which are safe and the proper amount to dispense.
Your kitty needs to eat to keep up her strength. With calicivirus some cats develop ulcers in their mouths, which can make eating painful. To encourage her to eat, give a liquid, room-temperature food suggested by your veterinarian. Remember that cats depend on their sense of smell when it comes to eating. If they cant smell their food, they wont eat, so schedule your nose cleanings around mealtimes.
Liquids are extremely important – more so even than food, at least in the short term. Liquids with strong smells really attract cats. Some special treats are the juice from a can of water-based tuna, which provides fluid and plenty of good smells! Chicken bouillon is another good thing to try, but be sure to use the low sodium variety; it is safer for cats that may already be dehydrated.
A Visit to the Veterinarian
Cats with upper respiratory infections may run fevers for a few days. DO NOT give any acetominophen (Tylenol) or aspirin. Aspirin should only be used under the direct supervision of your veterinarian and in miniscule doses while acetominophen should never be used for cats.
Determining if your cat needs antibacterial medication is hard to predict. Because viruses cause most upper respiratory infections and antibacterials do not harm viruses, its important to know if a secondary bacterial infection is present. Your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate medication if bacteria are found to be complicating the problem.
So how do you know if your cat needs to visit your veterinarian? If she is not eating or drinking, a visit is important. Because dehydration is so common – and so serious – fluid therapy is usually required. Fluids can be given intravenously or subcutaneously (under the skin), depending on how sick the cat is. Fluids alone can perk up a sick cat immensely. A cat that is developing pneumonia may need hospitalization to receive oxygen while her system fights off the virus. Cats that
cant be encouraged to eat at home may require a hospital stay while nutrition
is given via a tube-a task best left to the veterinarian.
How can you prevent viral upper-respiratory-tract infections? Vaccination is a mainstay. Feline herpesvirus and calicivirus vaccines are widely available and are recommended for all cats. Vaccinated cats are usually protected against serious illness, even though they are not completely protected from infection. The viruses are usually spread directly from cat to cat, although they can survive for variable amounts of time (up to a week or more) on surfaces, such as food dishes, cages, and clothing. If you volunteer at your local animal shelter, make it a practice to change clothes when you leave or as soon as you get home and immediately wash your clothes. When at the shelter, wash your hands between handling different cats.
If youre bringing a new kitty to your home where other cats already live, isolate the addition to your family for at least a week. This should stop the spread of any acute infections, although some cats will carry respiratory viruses without getting ill themselves. If you add a new cat, watch carefully for any signs of illness in any of your feline family members, and start care as soon as a sign appears. Cats that have successfully handled respiratory infections dont seem to have long-lived immunity and can become re-infected if exposed to a respiratory virus.
Upper respiratory infections are usually not life threatening. With your excellent home care and the advice of your veterinarian, your kitty should recover quickly, mostly in the comfort of her own home!