Just like people get colds, cats can get viral infections that make them sneeze, snuffle, and get watery eyes. And much in the same way a cold can run through a child’s kindergarten class, cats can get the feline equivalent by associating with other cats. Outdoor cats or cats exposed to other felines in shelters or boarding kennels may get what’s referred to as an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI).
A URI refers to an infection that is centered around the sinuses, eyes, nose, and throat. Two viruses are responsible for most upper respiratory infections: herpesvirus-1 and feline calicivirus. A bacterial infection called feline chlamydia is also responsible for some feline URI cases.
The bottom line is that if your cat starts sneezing or has a nasal discharge or watery eyes, she may have an infection. Although the infection itself generally isn’t serious, complications can arise, especially in young kittens. These youngsters often don’t have a fully developed immune system and may develop fatal cases of pneumonia or other serious problems.
Because the infection is often viral, there may not be a lot you can do. However, veterinarians may prescribe antibiotics to help prevent secondary bacterial infections. They may also prescribe drugs to alleviate some of the symptoms or to treat complications such as eye ulcers.
As with a human cold, the best way to prevent URIs is not to get them in the first place. Vaccinations exist that can prevent the diseases. Keeping your cat healthy with good food and a healthy lifestyle will bolster her immune system, so she’ll be more resistant to viruses.
If you work or volunteer at places that have sick cats, be sure to wash your hands frequently. When I used to work at vet clinics and shelters, I would remove my shoes, change all my clothes, and wash my hands before getting near any of my animals. (The "contaminated" clothes and shoes were put away where prying snouts couldn’t sniff them.)
You also should take precautious when introducing a new pet to your household. If you foster cats or adopt new ones, be sure to isolate the new arrival for a while to ensure you don’t infect your existing cats.
Think about where you adopt your pets as well. Sanitation and isolation procedures have been well known and in place at many shelters and humane societies for years. They fight a daily battle against incoming disease, yet still some places don’t take the necessary precautions to prevent disease.
So with that in mind, if you see a shelter full of sick cats, you should be ready for your cat to get sick, even if he doesn’t exhibit any symptoms when you adopt him. Feline URIs can take a while before symptoms appear. The odds are good the URI will break out at some point after you get your feline friend home. Just be ready, take him to the vet, and give him the care he needs.