Cat Colds: How to Treat and Take Care of a Cat with a Cold

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 11 min read

Cat Colds: How to Treat and Take Care of a Cat with a Cold

The common cold is one of the most enduring infections in the world. But why is that?

Both viruses and bacteria can cause cat colds, and if you have a young kitten or an older cat, it’s especially important to try to prevent these infections.

But what if your cat does get a cold? What can you do to help them? Does your fur baby need to be seen by a vet? We’ll get into that and more in today’s post.

Colds vs Respiratory Infections

The truth is, there’s no such thing as “a cold.” What we call a cold is just an upper respiratory infection (URI), usually viral rather than bacterial/fungal/etc., and it's defined more by the symptoms than the cause.

Respiratory infections in cats can be caused by a number of different viruses, but the vast majority are from two common viruses, the feline calicivirus and the feline herpes virus (FHV), also known as the feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR).

“The chief infectious agents that cause feline upper respiratory infections are herpesvirus; and calicivirus, together accounting for about 90 percent of infections. Other agents include: Chlamydophila, Mycoplasma, Bordetella, and others.”

A cat lying on its back on a wood floor looking up to a cat toy by Momma Knows Best Organics

Just like how the flu is actually a wide range of different mutations of the influenza virus, the cold can be any of the different kinds of rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses.

That's right; coronaviruses are usually responsible for a simple cold. COVID-19 is just one of many different kinds of these viruses and is only more dangerous because it's a new kind that humans don't have a reaction to and can't fight off as effectively. It's basically just a cold dialed-up to 11.

Why do I go into this digression? Well, you may have heard stories of lions, tigers, and housecats all being able to catch COVID. Our poor furry friends can get sick the same way we can, sometimes even from the same viruses.

It's very rare for the same virus to cross species lines, however, so most viruses that cause URIs in cats are not going to get you sick and vice versa. COVID-19 is a special case.

"No, cats cannot get colds from humans. The vast majority of viruses are highly species-specific and will not survive in a different host. Some bacterial infections can be transmitted to and from humans and cats, but this is rare.

Cats can get COVID-19 from humans and may show mild symptoms, but this is extremely rare." – Daily Paws.

How Do Cats Catch Colds?

When you think of colds in humans, you know it’s transmitted from someone else who is already sick. The same is true for cats. This might have you wondering, my cat is indoor only, so s/he will never get a cold, right?

Wrong. While being an indoor only cat reduces the chance of your kitty getting a cold transmitted from another cat, it doesn’t eliminate the risk.

Cats can pick up a virus that you brought home after petting another sick cat. They can also pick up a bug at the vet if they interact with another cat, or if they are boarded in a facility with relaxed cleaning protocols.

The truth is your cat is most likely already a carrier of the feline herpes virus and just isn’t showing symptoms.

“Up to 97% of cats are exposed to feline herpes virus in their lifetime, and the virus causes a lifelong infection in up to 80% of exposed cats. Of these, up to 45% will periodically shed the virus, usually when stressed.” – Cornell Feline Health Center

The crowded environment of shelters allows feline herpes to spread like wildfire, but it can also be a problem in breeding catteries.

Case in Point: As an adult, I’ve only ever had rescue kitties and they’ve all been carriers of FHV. A couple of my babies would have flares during stressful times, but most of the time showed no symptoms. My sister has purebred Maine Coons, and one has a chronic case of FHV.

What Are the Symptoms of a Cold in Cats?

Upper respiratory infections in cats are pretty similar to how they are in people. The symptoms can range from very mild to pretty severe, but they're generally not life-threatening unless your cat is otherwise susceptible to illness (very young or very old), sick in other ways, or the "cold" is actually something more dangerous.

It's worth noting that cats are notorious for hiding their illnesses. It’s a form of self-preservation, so, when your cat is obviously sick, they're likely in the worst of it.

A Cat With a Fever Image by Toe Beans

Here are the most common symptoms of a cold in cats:

Should You Bring Your Sick Cat to the Vet?

Now that we know what symptoms to look for, your next question is likely should I take my poor sick fur baby to the vet, and if so, should it be an emergency vet trip or just an appointment scheduled ASAP?

Luckily, colds are almost always minor in cats, just like they are in humans. We think of colds as an annoyance and a source of stress, not as a life-threatening ailment, because they very rarely end up serious or fatal.

99% of the time, you don't need to bring your cat to the vet at all for a simple cold. They'll probably get over the worst of it and bounce back to their happy, purring selves in just a few days. The key in making the determination of whether or not a vet visit is needed is documenting the symptoms and whether they are improving or getting worse.

A Vet Treating a Sick Cat Image by Toe Beans

While most cat colds are caused by viruses and resolve on their own, some are caused by bacteria or fungi. Even a viral cold can become more severe by developing a secondary bacterial infection.

The following examples are cases where your cat needs to be seen by a vet.

  • If they remain sick for more than 4-5 days, they may have something worse than a cold, or they may have an underlying issue that makes the cold worse, and vet treatment may be necessary.
  • If their symptoms are very severe, such as having a lot of trouble breathing, wheezing, and other signs of pneumonia.
  • If they refuse to eat or drink for more than 24 hours, they may need a vet to give them nutrients and fluids to get over the worst of the disease. Not eating or significantly reduced eating over an extended period of time, can cause death in cats.
  • If they're already old, infirm, sick for other reasons, or very young. Colds can be more dangerous if your fur baby has a poor or compromised immune system for other reasons, so they are at higher risk of more serious illness.

As with any ailment, keep an eye on your cat, and consider any underlying health issues. A cat with asthma may need to be seen by a very for mild symptoms, whereas an otherwise healthy cat would not. Watch your cat’s behaviors and determine whether or not you feel like you need faster treatment. An unnecessary vet trip you take when you don't need it may be expensive, but it's better than your cat needing a trip to the vet and not getting it.

Can You Prevent Your Cats from Getting Sick?

Well, yes and no. There are a lot of things you can do to help minimize the chances of your fur baby catching a cold, but there's no way to truly 100% prevent them from getting sick.

Making Sure a Cat Has Food Image by Toe Beans

First and foremost, get your kitty vaccinated.

Those two viruses I mentioned earlier that cause 90% of URIs in cats, have a vaccine. While it won’t prevent infection, it will help minimize the severity of symptoms if you cat contracts the virus or is already a carrier. Without the vaccine these viruses can lead to death.

You might already be familiar with the vaccine, it’s a combo vaccine called FVRCP. Kittens will need this vaccine several every 3 to 4 weeks for several months, as well as a shot at one year.

Recommendations will vary by vet, but once the initial series is complete, your cat will typically only need to be revaccinated every 3 years.

Keep your cat indoors.

The main culprits of cat colds are the FVR and FHV and since they are highly transmissible, it’s best to keep your kitty away from non-vaccinated cats.

Wash your hands after petting any cats other than your own.

Colds can travel through the air and on surfaces, and even if your cats don't associate with other cats, you can transfer the germs by bringing them into your home on your hands or even your clothes.

Make sure your fur baby has food, shelter, and warmth.

This isn't usually a problem for indoor cats, but if you keep barn cats, mousers, or other "working" cats, the winter months can be harder on them, and they can end up sick because of the stress.

Try to minimize stress.

A stressed animal is more prone to getting sick because their immune system is suppressed by the stress hormone cortisol. This goes for people, too, by the way; if you're worried about getting sick, do what you can to minimize stress to alleviate the worst of it.

Make sure you have adequate ventilation and air quality in your home.

Stagnant air, dirty air, and trapped air all make it harder to breathe appropriately and stay free from illnesses, and if a cold does get into your home, it will end up trapped rather than circulated away.

Isolate a Sick Cat from Other Cats

Cats spread illness quite quickly amongst themselves, and that makes a sick cat a danger to other cats around them.

If your cat lives with you all alone, you don't need to worry. You won't catch the cold from them, and any dogs or other animals you have won't either. However, if you have other cats, you should establish a "sick room" for your fur baby – usually a bathroom, spare bedroom, or other isolated space – and keep the sick fur baby away from the others for 3-5 days.

It's going to be tough. Hearing your sick fur baby cry from their sick room will break your heart, even if you go and spend time with them. For cats that love spending time cuddling with one another, they may even take up the heartbreaking position of trying to cuddle through a door. Even this can be dangerous exposure if there's too much space under the door, though. You should try what you can to keep the illness from spreading between cats.

You’ll also want to practice good hygiene when going between visiting your sick kitty and the healthy ones.

Two Cats Cuddling Image by Toe Beans

Similarly, if your cat is used to being able to go outdoors and wander, socialize with other cats, keeping them inside for several days is important. Any other cat they spend time socializing with outdoors is also at risk of catching the same cold, and these illnesses can spread quickly in packs of strays and feral felines.

Should You Give Your Cat Cold Medicines?

The short answer, no. You should not give your cat human cold medicines. That goes for topical medications too. While you might find those chest rub creams help open up your stuffy sinuses, they are not safe for cats. Remember anything that’s applied to your cat’s coat is likely going to ingested as they work to remove it.

Giving a Cat a Medicine Image by Toe Beans

Most of the time, human cold medicines aren't just ineffective; they can actually be toxic to your fur baby. The last thing you want to do is make the situation worse.

How Can You Make Your Cat Feel Better?

If your cat ends up with an upper respiratory infection, the good news is there are things you can do to help.

Before embarking on a home treatment plan, keep in mind that stress can exacerbate symptoms. You know your cat best, so balance your urge to help with how they are responding to said help.

Owner Helping Their Sick Cat Image by Toe Beans

Here are some at home remedies you can try.

  • Use steam and humidity. A humidifier can help in pretty much any room they're in, preferably one that warms the steam rather than a cold vaporizer. Alternatively, bring them to the bathroom and run a hot shower to steam up the room. This can help fight dehydration, help their mucus membranes stay moist, and loosen up the gunk in their sinuses and lungs to help get it out.
  • Clean their nose and eyes with a warm, damp cloth. If they'll let you, of course. Wiping and dabbing at their crusty eyes and stuffy or runny nose will help keep them a little bit more comfortable. You can't exactly get them to cough up the gunk, but when it comes out on its own, you can clean it up.
  • When feeding them, use soft food. This can be wet food, or you can moisten dry food with a bit of broth or tuna juice to make it softer and easier to eat. If you’re rehydrating wet food, do it in small amounts and throw away anything that hasn’t been eaten. Leaving it out for several hours will allow bacteria to grow.
  • Warm up the food a bit. Congestion makes it hard to smell anything, and if your fur baby can't smell their food, they won't be as interested in it. Heating it up a bit – ensuring it’s not hot enough to burn them – will increase the odors and make it easier for them to smell.
  • Provide warmth for them to stay comfortable. Using a cat safe heating pad under their bed or a warm blanket can help keep them warm and cozy while they fight off the illness.
  • Clean and replace blankets, bedding, food, and water bowls, and other items they contact every day. Because many viruses and bacteria live on surfaces, constant exposure to the same materials can lead to reinfection or prolonged infection and can be a danger to other cats.
  • Do what you can to reduce their stress. There are all kinds of sources of stress in life, and minimizing them can help a lot. This could mean keeping the kids or dog away from your ill kitty, or using a pheromone plug in to reduce stress.

As we discussed earlier, if your kitty is in an at-risk group, especially young, old, or has underlying health conditions a vet visit is likely in order. Symptoms that are not improving also need a vet visit. The good news is your vet has additional tools that can be helpful for your kitty.

  • Antibiotics. If your vet determines your kitty’s cold is the result of bacteria, or that they’ve developed a secondary bacterial infection, an antibiotic might be prescribed to treat the infection. This could be injected, oral, or topical in the case of bacterial conjunctivitis.
  • Antivirals. In severe cases your vet may prescribe an antiviral medication to help speed up the recovery process.
  • Antifungals. If your vet determines your kitty’s URI is the result of a fungal infection, an anti-fungal drug might be prescribed.
  • Fluids. A sick kitty will tend to sleep more and eat/drink less, which can lead to dehydration. Subcutaneous fluids will counteract dehydration. This may be something your vet does as a one-time treatment in the office, or you may be given fluids to administer at home.
  • Appetite Stimulate. If your kitty has stopped eating because of a stuffy nose, and the tricks of warming their food, and using stinky options like tuna haven’t worked, your vet may prescribe an appetite stimulant to help encourage your kitty to eat.

Has your fur baby ever had to deal with a cold before? If so, how did you help them get through it? Be sure to leave all your stories in the comments section, down below! I'd love to hear them!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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