Foster Diary Health

A-CHOO! Kitty Colds & URIs

Review of the annoying kitty cold and how to treat it.

What Do You Mean My Cat Has Herpes?

Kitty colds aka upper respiratory infections (URIs) are common in cats, especially ones that come from a shelter. Most kitty colds are caused by the herpes virus, so yes, your cat has herpes, but it’s not an STD in cats, and is often transmitted through discharge from the eyes, nose, and mouth. Early signs are lots of sneezing and some mild eye discharge, which is often followed up by lots of snot and even grosser eye discharge. It’s as glorious as it sounds.

Anyone with a cat may have to deal with a kitty cold. If you foster cats, you will run in to kitty colds a lot because it’s just part of the job (lucky us). Fortunately, once you know what to do, it does get easier and you don’t freak out over every sneeze and snot rocket (kittens have tons of them). In this post, I’ll break down what I’ve found useful in treating them.

Beaker (one of my residents), to this day, had the worst kitty cold I have ever seen. He was super gross and snotty haha.

Why do fosters get colds so much?

  • Young kittens and stray, unhealthy cats have weaken immune systems.
  • Any stress from being in a shelter to even moving to any new location (including your home) can make them more susceptible, or stir up the virus if it’s already in their system.
  • When you put living things in a room together, they will catch what each other has – just think about what happens to kids when they start going to daycare or school.

Why are kitty colds a big deal?

Obviously it’s just a cold, but like children, seniors, and people with compromised immune systems, it can be serious if not treated properly. Here are the two main problems with kitty colds:

1. Weaken immune systems lead to secondary infections, like pneumonia, and those could be fatal if not treated. You can hear the horrible noises a stuffy Beaker made when his kitten cold turned into pneumonia:

2. Dehydration. Stuffy noses mean they can’t smell. Can’t smell, means they can’t taste. Can’t taste means they won’t eat and likely won’t drink. A dehydrated cat must be hydrated immediately.

Grey kitten with kitty cold.
Giada had a kitty cold while her eyes were closed as a kitten, which caused the scarring you see on her left eye. It flared up again at the shelter, which is why I fostered her. You can see goop coming out of her nose.

The Best Treatment for Kitty Colds

Use a humidifier or nebulizer. 

The steam will help your kitty breathe and loosen mucus in the nose and lungs.

Treat every 3-4 hours (or as often as you can with your schedule), for 10-15 minutes.

I use Vicks Nursery Humidifier, usually wrap the cat in a towel, and hold them over the steam. A steamed up bathroom from your shower works too!

Afterward, cup your hands (if a kitten, use two fingers) and tap the cat’s ribs for a few seconds. This will loosen any mucus in the lungs.

Get an oral antibiotic.

Commonly prescribed meds prescribed to prevent or fight a secondary infection are clavamox and doxycycline.

Kitten in shirt
I’m a fan of kangaroo care when it comes to sick or scared kittens.

Doxy tip: It burns your cat’s throat. They will gag, and sometimes, puke it up. What I do: small syringe of water first, then the doxy with water in the syringe, then the small syringe of water again. It seems to help with the burning. Disclaimer: Be smart, and only put water in slowly along the outside of the lower jaw. You don’t want them to choke and get water in their lungs.

Keep your kitty hydrated.

Try these tips:

Gray and white kitten with runny nose
I know Beaker was sick, but I always thought he was such a cute little baby.
  • Warm wet food for a few seconds to increase its scent.
  • Offer stinky fish like tuna (the smellier the better).
  • Boil chicken breasts in water and offer the chicken or broth.
  • Add more water to wet food.
  • Use small syringes to put drops of water in their mouths, but BE CAREFUL. As mentioned above, you don’t want them to choke or get water in their lungs. Just give them a few drops at a time along the outside lower jaw.
  • Administer IV fluids. If you don’t know how, ask the shelter/ rescue to train you. It’s a great thing to know even if you don’t use it right away.

Limit playtime

This is tough when you have a kitten, because even sick kittens want to scale the wall, but do your best to keep them in a small space so they don’t have room to run around and be hooligans:-)

Use saline drops for babies to keep the nose clear. 

I typically do two drops per nostril. It’s okay if they snort or sneeze afterward – better out than in.

Will my resident cat get a kitty cold?

Newsflash: your cat probably already had it. Most cats get it when they are young, but it can resurface. Since kitty colds are caused by a virus, kitty colds can flare up with stress, but unless your cat has a compromised immune system, he/she should fight it off with little problem. Once a cat reaches 3-5, their immune system is strong, plus add routine vaccinations, and you have one tough cookie. Just a day or two of sneezing is nothing to be concerned about. If you see funky discharge coming out of the nose or eyes, open-mouthed breathing/panting, or a decrease in appetite, see a vet.

Don’t Worry – Beaker Healed Just Fine

He became my first, and only, foster fail, by not my only encounter with kitty pneumonia. I used what I learned from him to help other sick kitties.

Beaker is a rare cat in that his has chronic herpes symptoms 24/7: he always has runny eyes and crap in his nose. It isn’t bad and doesn’t bother him – in fact, I think it bothers me more than him because I’m always wiping his eyes. He’s perfectly happy and healthy. Some cats have ongoing symptoms that rarely even need management.

Kitty colds are a pain, but much less stressful once you know what to do!Beaks

Did you know I was in the hospital from an infected cat bite?

Any break in the skin is susceptible to a bacterial skin infection. Read all about cellulitis so you can protect yourself and your family. 


By LizsKittyBootCamp

Hi, I'm Liz, and I'm a cat behaviorist who provides advice and insights on cat behavior.

3 replies on “A-CHOO! Kitty Colds & URIs”

[…] Upper respiratory infections or URIs can be tricky buggers! While they are mostly viral, they can create a secondary infection. Cats in shelters almost always received the antibiotic doxycycline. With high volume intake, it’s important to eliminate any infection and keep all the other cats as healthy as possible. For cats in foster care, you have a little more leeway to ride out the virus, as long as symptoms are mild. Below are four different scenarios you could encounter. We start with the easiest and least costly option first. You’ll see how different patients, situations, and histories led to different diagnostics and treatment plans. […]

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