Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Kittens

Have you recently adopted or found a stray kitten? Noticed sneezing, goopy eyes, or discharge from the nose? Upper respiratory infections in young cats and kittens are extremely common and, fortunately, often treatable. Many shelter cats are prone to developing these infections, and the viruses responsible for them have even been discovered in the California Mountain Lion population! In the following article, I will discuss Feline URIs, their diagnosis, their treatment, and their prognosis.

While there are five known etiologic agents that cause URIs in cats, they tend to have similar presenting signs. These include sneezing, eye discharge, redness in the eyes, increased squinting/pawing at the eyes, nasal discharge, and in some cases, ulcers in the mouth. Some or all of these signs together form a complex we refer to as Feline Upper Respiratory Tract Infections.

The five agents known to cause this are Herpes Virus, Calici Virus, Chlamydophila, Mycoplasma, and Bordatella, which is the same general category of bacteria known to cause Kennel Cough in dogs and whooping cough in people.

Some of these causes are viral, others bacterial in nature. Symptoms in kittens and cats can range from mild sneezing to severe ocular and nasal discharge, anorexia, and lethargy. In the most extreme form of the condition, severe symptoms, including blindness, severe lethargy, and pneumonia, can result. These can be fatal if left untreated or not caught early enough.

Fortunately, most causes of kitten URIs are mild to moderate in nature and are treatable. Common treatment options include antiviral medications, antibiotics, and ophthalmic antibiotics to fight the eye infection. The specific medications chosen often vary from case to case, depending on the severity of signs noted. It is important to note that while antibiotics are used to treat the secondary bacterial component of the condition in many cases; they do not treat the primary viral cause.

New antiviral medications may be effective in treating the primary viral infection in these cases. Some Veterinarians may also recommend an amino acid called L-Lysine; this may be able to boost your pet’s immune system and has been shown to slow viral replication in laboratory conditions.

Cats and kittens that are still eating, playful, and active tend to do very well with treatment and may completely get over their kitty colds. It should be noted that recurrence can occur, particularly after a known stressor such as moving, loud noises that scare your kitty, or a new neighborhood stray cat outside the window.

Kitten URIs are contagious to other cats and kittens through aerosolized droplets and through contact with clothing or skin containing those droplets on them. Fortunately, kitten URIs are not contagious to humans. It is also possible for adult cats to get URIs, but they are less susceptible to displaying symptoms once a fully competent immune system is developed. I consider adult-onset URIs to be a different subject, and as such, they will be discussed in another article.

Treating Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Kittens

If you suspect your kitten has an Upper Respiratory Tract infection, I recommend scheduling an appointment at one of our Veterinary Hospitals. If you are a new client, please bring any vaccination or medical records you have, which may help our staff. With a little bit of help and a lot of love, we will help you get your kitten feeling better and hopefully playing and purring for years to come.


Jeffrey Stupine V.M.D.
Medical Director

World of Animals Veterinary Hospitals