Coughing, sneezing, runny eyes and nose, and possibly a fever are all the familiar symptoms of a cold. Unlike in humans, however, most feline "colds" have known (and preventable) causes, usually one of three kinds of viruses. Safe and reliable vaccines are available to prevent them all.
Even vaccinated cats may have upper respiratory infections, though, and most will resolve within a few days to two weeks. Severe infections or those in cats with weakened immune systems may last several weeks. Although antibiotics won't kill the viruses, they are often prescribed to treat or prevent secondary infections that take hold when the virus damages tissue in the nose, eyes, sinuses, mouth, and possibly even the lungs of an affected cat.
Early signs of upper respiratory disease include sneezing, watery eyes, and a clear discharge from the nose. The cat usually runs a fever and may salivate. As the infection advances, the lining of the eyes may get inflamed (conjunctivitis), giving the eyes a "meaty" appearance; the nasal discharge contains pus; the tearing from the eyes turns white; and ulcers may appear in the mouth or on the tongue.
Advanced symptoms -- most commonly seen if the disease is left untreated -- include the eyelid being glued shut by pus and discharge with ulceration and destruction of the eyeball, loss of appetite due to obstruction of the nose by mucous and pus, and pneumonia. Viral pneumonia can be fatal and about one in five cats that develop it will die.
What to Do
Be sure she has her shots. Current vaccinations are the best protection against upper respiratory viruses. Even indoor cats who never have contact with another cat need their shots since the viruses are carried through the air.
Don't wait for it to go away. Even though many upper respiratory infections clear up on their own, don't assume this one will. Notify your vet. The virus can attack the eyeball, causing permanent damage or blindness. Also, a cat with an untreated cold will stop eating or may develop a fatal case of pneumonia.
Don't spread it around. Upper respiratory viruses are highly contagious. A cat with an active case must be kept away from other cats. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after petting, medicating, or otherwise working with the sick cat.
When to Call the Vet
If you call the vet when you see the early symptoms of a cold, the odds are you can prevent the worst-case scenario. Veterinarians can recommend a vaccine that can prevent feline "colds." This vaccination may not always work, but it can improve your cat's chances for a healthy recovery. At any rate, once any of the later symptoms appear (pus in the discharge from nose or eyes, ulcers in the mouth or on the tongue, loss of appetite), get the cat to the vet immediately.
DANGER LEVEL: Upper respiratory infections are fairly common and mild ones are only moderately dangerous. However, if left untreated or found in very young or elderly cats or cats with weakened immune systems, complications from what started out as a simple cold can be fatal.
Cats are just as susceptible to diseases as their owners. Just as there are steps you take in your life to prevent disease, there are steps you can take to keep your cat healthy. But, as with any serious disease, you should immediately see a medical professional if you suspect a serious problem.
©Publications International, Ltd.