You’re sneezing and coughing, aching all over, and you feel just all-around rotten. It’s flu season, but you fear you’re not alone: Kitty’s sneezing, too. You wonder, Did I give my cat the flu? Relax — you didn’t. Human and feline influenza viruses differ, but your cat may have an upper respiratory infection common among felines.
“Herpesvirus and calicivirus are the two chief infectious agents that account for 90 percent of feline upper respiratory infections,” says Dr. Karen Miller Becnel of the Cat Hospital of Metairie, in Louisiana. “Most cats are exposed to one or the other virus at some point in their lives.”
Some cats, however, are more vulnerable to cat flu than others. Persian cats may be predisposed to these conditions: Because their faces are flattened, they tend to tear more and can develop an inflammation within the skin folds, which can open the door to virus entry. If you have a Persian cat, gently wipe its face clean daily with a warm, damp cloth. Be careful when cleaning around the eye area.
Other vulnerable cats are those from animal shelters, the ones that otherwise live in close quarters with other cats and those living outdoors. Kittens are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems aren’t mature enough to fight off either virus. The infections are easily spread between cats through bodily contact, sneezing, or nasal or eye discharge.
Other than sneezing and coughing, symptoms of cat flu include loss of appetite, open-mouthed breathing, high fever, squinting, cloudy eyes or severe swelling of the tissue around the eyes, and heavy yellow or green eye discharge. In addition, a cat with feline calicivirus may have lesions around the mouth and tongue, making eating and drinking painful.
Most people with the flu take over-the-counter medicines and retreat to their beds, but flu-stricken felines need professional help. “These infections can be quite severe,” warns Dr. Becnel. “It is best to seek professional treatment for any ‘cold’ in a cat, especially a young one. Untreated, the cat could be left with permanent damage to the eyes, a complete loss of vision, a chronic sinus infection or even the loss of life itself.”
Although viruses generally cause feline respiratory infections, most veterinarians use antibiotics to treat them. The reason is that bacteria, which can complicate the cat’s condition and create additional discomfort, accompany many such infections. A veterinarian may also prescribe eye ointments for affected eyes and suggest over-the-counter human nose drops to ease nasal congestion. Generally, the virus lasts between seven and 14 days.
If your cat shows signs of feline flu, take the following steps:
- See your veterinarian A professional can determine whether your cat has an upper respiratory infection and map out an appropriate course of treatment.
- Practice good hygiene Feline viruses can live outside the cat’s body for a while. Calicivirus, for example, can survive for as long as two weeks. Be scrupulous about washing bowls, bedding or anything else with which your cat comes into contact. And if you have other cats, always wash your hands and clothing after handling the sick cat so that you don’t spread the virus to the other pets.
- No human cold meds Although nasal spray for humans can help a cat with a stuffed-up nose, other medications for humans should be kept away from cats. “Never use human cold medications,” warns Dr. Becnel. “These contain aspirin or acetaminophen, which are toxic for cats.”
- Be proactive The best way to handle cat flu is to keep it from becoming too serious. “Despite the highly contagious nature of all feline upper respiratory infections, most cats can be protected from severe disease,” says Dr. Becnel. The first line of defense is vaccination, either by injection or by nasal spray. Keeping your cat safe and cozy indoors with you, even if you are feeling under the weather yourself, helps as well.
Susan McCullough is an award-winning pet writer and the author of Housetraining for Dummies, Senior Dogs for Dummies and Beagles for Dummies. She was honored by The Cat Writers Association as a finalist for the Muse Medallion, which recognizes excellence in writing about cats.