Feline Upper Respiratory Disease

Feline Upper Respiratory Disease: From the Shelter to your Home

By William I. Jumper

Like nearly all animals, cats are susceptible to various pathogens that cause respiratory disease, especially when they are stressed, in close confinement with other cats, or immunocompromised in any way.

Upper respiratory disease is a very common ailment in cats of all ages, and can be particularly prominent in cats adopted out of shelter settings. Understanding the basics of upper respiratory disease, symptoms commonly seen, and some simple biosecurity steps that can help prevent disease is essential for all cat owners, especially those considering adopting a new cat.

                By far, the two most common causes of upper respiratory disease in cats are feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV) and feline calicivirus (FCV). A vaccine is commonly administered for both viruses and reasonable protection can be achieved through vaccination against both viruses. However, the vaccines will not prevent infection or the development of a carrier state (Binns et al., 2000). Both the herpesvirus and calicivirus are spread through direct contact with the respiratory secretions of other infected cats, or through contact with contaminated objects. Both FHV and FCV cause disease only in cats, so there is no human health concern (Griffin, 2009). Most commonly, these viruses will infect kittens, or cats with weakened immune systems due to other illnesses. However, cats of any age are susceptible to infection by FHV and FCV (Banfield, 2016).

 Early recognition of the symptoms of feline upper respiratory disease resulting from infection of FHV and FCV is essential to their successful treatment. Common symptoms include sneezing, runny nose with green or yellow discharge possibly with blood, nasal congestion, sore throat indicated by difficulty swallowing, red and watery or puffy eyes, green or yellow discharge from the eyes, poor appetite, depression, fever, and dehydration. Corneal ulcers are often seen with herpesvirus, while ulcers in the mouth and on the tongue are common with calicivirus. These primary viral infections can often be complicated by secondary bacterial infections such as with Bordetella. Less common symptoms seen with primary viral infections but symptoms characteristic of secondary bacterial infections include deep coughing, pneumonia, and limping or painful joints (Griffin, 2009). If these symptoms are recognized early, immediate care from a veterinarian can often lessen the severity of the symptoms, speed recovery of the cat, and prevent transmission of the disease to other cats.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, approximately 3 million cats enter animal shelters each year (Tanaka et al.,2012). Most commonly, cats are individually housed in small cages upon arrival to a shelter in an attempt to maintain biosecurity and prevent the spread of disease. However, the individual caging used in most shelters does not allow most cats to express their natural behavior of jumping, playing, laying fully stretched out, eating and drinking away from the litter box, and do not have access to a place to hide or material to scratch on. Additionally, cats are often housed in loud areas, or areas where dogs are also housed (Tanaka et al., 2012). The inability of the cat to display its natural behavior combined with a new environment creates a great amount of stress. Stress has been shown to play a major role in the development of upper respiratory disease in cats. When a cat is introduced into a new environment such as a shelter, or when a cat is adopted and taken from a shelter into a new home, the adjustment period can be very stressful. They may not eat as well, subsequently lose weight, and have a weakened immune system. If the cat has been exposed to herpesvirus before and is a carrier, the virus can become active again during the period of stress causing the cat to show clinical disease and to begin shedding the virus again (Griffin, 2009).  Although we often take into consideration the stress on cats that are placed in shelters, we frequently do not consider that a cat can be under an equal amount of stress when they are adopted and placed in a new home environment. Some factors to consider when adopting a new cat would be whether the cat has been vaccinated for the common viral causes of upper respiratory tract disease, whether the home has any other animals already living there, will the cat be able to express its natural behavior in the new home (i.e. hiding, playing, scratching, etc.), and have if there are other cats already in the home, have those cats been vaccinated? The American Association of Feline Practitioners (or AAFP) has set forth five pillars that comprise a healthy environment for every cat. According to the AAFP, every cat should be provided with a safe place to hide, key environmental resources such as food, water, toileting areas, scratching areas, play areas, and resting areas, an opportunity to play and/or display predatory behavior, a positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat social interaction, and an environment that respects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell (Givin, 2016). Consultation with a veterinarian can help ensure these five pillars are met while also ensuring a proper diet is provided to the new cat. By observing these five pillars and ensuring they are present in the environment of the cat, you can decrease the level of stress on the cat, and subsequently decrease the risk that the cat will develop upper respiratory disease.

 Upper respiratory disease is a serious illness in cats and kittens, but by minimizing stress in the environment of the cat as well as considering proper biosecurity when introducing a new cat, you can minimize the likelihood of your new pet developing upper respiratory disease.