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Can Cats Actually Get the Common Cold?

They’re not exactly blowing their noses and rubbing Vicks on their chests, but here’s what you need to know.

A gray cat sneezes from red poppies in a field.
iStock / Ruslana Chub

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Does your cat’s runny nose, sneezing, and congestion make you want to offer them an entire box of tissues? And no, that’s not that weird of a thing to ask; cats can get colds just like people. The causes of an upper respiratory infection (URI) in a cat are different from those seen in humans, though, so it’s nice to know that you don’t have to worry about snuggling with your kitty for comfort when you’re feeling sick. You won’t pass on your nasty cough to them, and they can’t pass on their runny nose to you.

Cat colds can sometimes be quite, well, dramatic (who’s shocked?). It’s understandable to be concerned about your fuzzball’s health when they look and sound like a snotty baby. Here’s what can cause these cold-like symptoms and what you can do to help your feline friend.

What are the symptoms of cold in a cat?

Cats with URIs can show a variety of signs that they’re having problems. Some cats with a mild cold can have a runny nose, sneezing, and audible congestion when they breathe. Kitties who are dealing with mild infections can still feel great and be their normal, playful selves.

Greenish discharge from the nose or eyes, swollen eyes, squinting, coughing, lethargy, and fever can be signs of a more serious infection. A hoarse “meow” may accompany these symptoms and can sound quite pathetic. In severe cases, ulcers in the mouth, open-mouthed breathing or panting, loss of appetite, and dehydration are possible.

Like the common cold in people, most URIs run their course in about five to 10 days. Kittens, older cats, and cats with compromised immune systems may have more trouble fighting off infections. Infections in these pets may last longer or be more severe.

Symptoms to look out for

  • Runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Congestion

  • Green discharge from nose or eyes

  • Swollen eyes

  • Squinting

  • Coughing

  • Lethargy

  • Fever

What causes a URI in cats?

Most cat colds are caused by a viral infection. The two viruses that cause most upper respiratory issues in cats are feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus. There are sometimes bacteria involved as well, most commonly Chlamydia felis or Mycoplasma felis. Don’t worry: These versions of herpes and Chlamydia aren’t the ones you learned about in health class.

Bacterial URIs rarely occur by themselves, but a viral URI can sometimes set the stage for a secondary bacterial infection that will make your cat’s symptoms worse or slow their recovery. Just like in people, herpes is forever and enjoys reappearing during times of stress. Your vet can test to determine which annoying bug is causing your cat to be sick. But they won’t always do this because cats are often recovering by the time the results return, and the treatment is the same for most causes.

What other things can look like a feline URI?

Not every cat with a runny nose has a cold. If your cat’s symptoms are very severe or persist past a couple of weeks, other causes may need to be considered. Allergies, nasal polyps or tumors, severe dental disease, or foreign objects (like a blade of grass) in the nose can all cause similar signs.

Are cat colds contagious to other cats or people?

Unfortunately, viral URIs tend to be very contagious to other cats, especially housemates who are in close contact. The herpesvirus cannot survive for a full day outside of its host, but calicivirus can last for up to a month in the environment. This means that sick cats can spread the virus through indirect contact via bedding, clothes, or other objects. These viruses are not known to spread to people or other animal species.

Bacterial URIs can also spread from cat to cat through direct contact with secretions and have the possibility (though small) of infecting humans or other species. Because of this, it’s always best to practice good hygiene and wash your hands after handling your cat when they’re sick.

When should you worry about your cat’s cold symptoms?

Watching your sniffly cat at home can cause a lot of stress and uncertainty. It’s hard to know how sick is too sick. The safest bet is to call your vet’s office if you’re concerned at all. They can get information about your cat’s symptoms and determine if a visit is called for or if it’s OK to watch and wait. They’re also familiar with your cat’s history and can determine if there are any additional risk factors to be concerned about.

Generally speaking, symptoms, such as open-mouthed breathing, loss of appetite, high fever, or severe lethargy are reasons for concern. If your vet isn’t open, an emergency veterinary clinic can assess your kitty’s condition and help guide you on what type of treatment is needed. Some sick cats may need to stay in the hospital for supportive care and treatment, but many can be treated on an outpatient basis.

What can you do for your cat’s cold at home?

Minimal intervention is needed for cats with mild URIs. Just watch to make sure your kitty remains playful, eats well, and has all their symptoms resolve within a week or two. If your cat has severe congestion, your vet may recommend putting them in a bathroom with a steamy shower running for 10 minutes a couple times a day to help clear their nose. If your cat’s diet allows it, a topper of some slightly warmed canned cat food can help to make their food smell more strongly and stimulate their appetite.

Medical treatment at home will be guided by your veterinarian, but could involve an antibiotic eye ointment, an oral antibiotic, an appetite stimulant, or an antiviral. Your vet will base their recommendations for treatments on each cat’s symptoms — many cats do not need medications at home and likely appreciate not being forced to swallow medications while they’re not feeling well.

The most effective at-home therapy is prevention. Avoid having your cat in crowded boarding situations or around sick cats. If your cat has a history of viral infection, avoid stressors as much as possible. It’s always hard to know what stresses a cat out, but things like visitors, new pets, moving, and construction can all trigger a stress response.  

If your cat or kitten gets a URI, keep them isolated from new cats for at least a month after signs have resolved. Some cats can shed viruses even after they seem to have recovered fully. The good news is that the large majority of cats do recover fully from URIs and quickly go back to their normal routine.

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Dr. Bartley Harrison holding his dog

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM is a small animal veterinarian based in North Carolina who has practiced emergency medicine since graduating from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. His primary interest areas include pain management, cardiology, and the treatment of shock.

He is a member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, American Veterinary Medical Association, and American Medical Writers Association. In addition to his clinical work, he writes pet health articles to help provide accurate information for both new and experienced pet parents. When he’s not working, he enjoys cooking, traveling, reading, and going on adventures with his dog.