If you suffer from the discomfort and congestion of a cold a few times per year, you may wonder if you can pass this infection along to your cat. While cats can be infected with viruses that cause symptoms that may look similar to human colds, they are unlikely to catch your cold virus. However, there are several common upper respiratory infections that occur in cats and may require veterinary care.
Can Your Cat Catch Your Cold?
When people "catch" colds, they become infected with viruses that cause symptoms of upper respiratory illness. These may include a sore throat, cough, runny nose and congestion, headache, and body aches. Viruses that commonly cause colds in people include respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, some human coronaviruses, adenovirus, and human metapneumovirus.
Cold viruses are spread by person-to-person contact, and there is no cure for colds. Treatment involves supportive care, like getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated, while the immune system fights off the infection. Most people recover from colds in about 7-10 days. Colds may pose a greater risk to people with compromised immune systems or who suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma.
Your cat cannot catch a cold virus from you because most cold-causing viruses in people are specific to humans. Even though your cat won't catch your cold virus, if you are sick it is always a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your cat.
There are some respiratory viruses that you can spread to your cat, however. In particular, influenza A viruses can spread from people to cats, and cats have become infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from contact with infected people. If you are sick with either of these illnesses, it is best to isolate yourself from your cat and have someone who is not infected care for them until you are better. In most cases, illnesses have been mild in domestic cats who have become infected with the flu or COVID-19.
What Are the Symptoms of Colds in Cats?
Colds in cats are called upper respiratory infections, sometimes abbreviated as URIs, because of the area of the respiratory tract they commonly affect. URIs can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The most common viruses are feline herpesvirus 1 (not the same as human herpesviruses) and feline calicivirus, which cause around 90% of upper respiratory infections in cats.
Bacterial infections are often caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica, various Mycoplasma species, and Chlamydia felis, and they account for many of the remaining URIs in cats. Fungal infections are caused by Cryptococcus neoformans or C. gattii and Aspergillus. Fungal infections in cats can be quite serious, sometimes life-threatening, and often are not restricted to the upper respiratory tract. Fortunately, fungal infections are an uncommon cause of upper respiratory symptoms in cats.
Upper respiratory viruses and bacteria are spread easily between cats, especially in crowded, stressful conditions like animal shelters. Cats with feline herpesvirus are often infected as kittens, and once infected, they have the virus for life. When they are otherwise healthy and not overly stressed, the immune system controls the virus and prevents symptoms from occurring. At times of stress or if the immune system becomes compromised, they may have repeat instances of illness. Cats with feline herpesvirus can live normal, happy lives, although it can be fatal in kittens. Your veterinarian can talk with you about long-term support for a cat with feline herpesvirus.
How Are Colds Treated in Cats?
Most cats recover from upper respiratory viral infections in about 7-10 days. Viral infections do not need to be treated with medications unless they become severe or develop secondary bacterial infections. If your cat develops sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge that your veterinarian determines is viral, you can usually give supportive care to your cat at home until recovery.
- Make sure your cat is eating well and drinking plenty of water.
- Offer strong-smelling canned food if your cat is reluctant to eat. URIs affect a cat's ability to smell their food, so the smellier the better.
- Keep your cat isolated from other cats in the household.
- Keep your cat in a stress-free and quiet environment.
- If your cat is congested, use a humidifier or put your cat in a bathroom with the shower running until the room is steamy to help break up congestion (do not put your cat in the shower or get them wet).
If your cat is not showing improvement after a few days, or you see the following symptoms, it's time to go back to the veterinarian. Your cat may need to be hospitalized or given additional care to clear the infection.
Take your cat to the hospital if you observe:
- Your cat has stopped eating or drinking
- Open-mouthed breathing or any breathing difficulties
- Lethargy, listlessness, or behavior changes
- Fever (if you are able to take your cat's temperature at home)
Bacterial and fungal infections require medications to clear the infection. Sometimes long courses of medications are needed, particularly for fungal infections.
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Veterinary Partner. Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats.
Taboada, J. Fungal Infections in Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual.