Does My Cat Have A Cold? A Vet Explains What To Look For

Does My Cat Have A Cold - a fluffy brown tabby cat laying down on a white blanket facing the camera looking very sleep

Last updated on January 31st, 2024 at 06:39 am

by Dr. WL Wilkins, DVM, PhD.

Does your cat have the sniffles? A runny or stuffy nose and watery eyes? Are you wondering “does my cat have a cold?”

Cats, like humans, can catch colds, and these can range from mild to severe, particularly in certain vulnerable groups like kittens and senior cats.  As a pet owner, it’s important to know the signs of a cold in cats, understand the progression of the illness, and recognize when your cat needs veterinary care.  

Whether you’re a long-time cat parent or new to the world of feline care, this article will arm you with the knowledge you need to support your cat through their cold and make sure your fur baby has a speedy recovery. 

Does My Cat Have A Cold: What To Look For

A cat cold, also known as a feline upper respiratory infection (URI), is a common condition in cats that affects their respiratory tract. It’s similar to a cold virus in humans and is most often caused by a feline herpesvirus or calicivirus.

While usually mild, these viral infections have the potential to become serious, especially in kittens, senior cats, or immune-compromised cats. 

The most common symptoms of a cat cold include:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery or runny eyes and nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Mild fever (102.5º F to 104º F) 

Differences Between a Cold and More Serious Conditions

While the above symptoms are most common with a cold, there are signs that something more serious  may be going on with your cat:

  • Persistent Symptoms: Symptoms lasting more than a 1-2 weeks.
  • Difficulty Breathing: Struggling to breathe, wheezing, rapid breathing, or open mouth breathing.
  • Change in Discharge Color: Thick eye or nasal discharge that is yellow or green or streaked with blood, or sneezing blood. 
  • Refusal to Eat or Drink: It’s not uncommon for a cat to lose its appetite if it is not feeling well, but if your cat stops eating or drinking entirely, this is serious and requires immediate veterinary attention.
  • Fever: Body temperature higher than 104º
  • Severe Lethargy or Unresponsiveness: Extreme changes in activity levels or responsiveness.

If you notice any of these symptoms, seek veterinary care for your cat as soon as possible. 

Does My Cat Have A Cold - orange tabby cat being examined by a veterinarian

Do Cat Colds Go Away on Their Own?

Cat colds, like human colds, usually go away on their own. How long the cold lasts and how severely the cat is affected can differ between individuals.

Natural Course of a Cat Cold:

  • Typical Duration: A typical cat cold usually lasts about 7 to 10 days. Most cats start to show signs of improvement within a week.
  • Symptom Progression: Initially, cats may exhibit mild cold symptoms like sneezing or a runny nose. These symptoms might intensify for a few days before gradually improving.
  • Self-Resolving: In many cases, especially with a healthy adult cat, the cold will resolve on its own with supportive care, such as making sure the cat stays warm and dry and has access to good food and fresh water. 

Factors Affecting Duration and Severity

  • Age and Health: Young kittens, older cats, and those with existing health conditions or weakened immune systems may have more severe symptoms and a longer recovery period.
  • Nutrition and Hydration:  A well-nourished and hydrated cat is more likely to have a milder cold and quicker recovery.
  • Stress and Environment: Stress can weaken a cat’s immune system, prolonging the illness. A calm and comfortable environment will help with recovery.
  • Viral or Bacterial Cause: Colds caused by bacteria can be more severe cases and might require antibiotics, whereas viral colds do not respond to antibiotics and typically require supportive care.

When to Consult a Veterinarian

  • Lack of Improvement: If symptoms persist beyond 10 days or worsen, then it’s time to call a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis of your pet.
  • Severe Symptoms: Difficulty breathing, persistent cough, refusal to eat or drink, or any drastic change in behavior warrants immediate veterinary attention.
  • Secondary Infections: If symptoms like nasal or eye discharge change color or thickness, it could indicate a secondary bacterial infection, which may require antibiotics.
  • Overall Health Concerns: For kittens, elderly cats, or those with pre-existing health conditions, it’s usually advisable to seek veterinary advice even for mild symptoms.

How Do You Treat a Cat with a Cold at Home?

Although there is no cure for a viral cat cold, providing supportive care and treatment can help ease symptoms and promote recovery. Here are some ways you can help your fur baby get over their cold: 

Encourage Rest: Make sure your cat has a warm, quiet place to rest away from household noise and stress. Cats often sleep more when sick, so let them doze as needed. An extra blanket or pet heating pad may make them more comfortable.

Create a Warm and Comfortable Environment:  Keep your home at a comfortable, stable temperature, and make sure your cat’s resting place is away from drafts and not too close to open windows or doors.

Provide Plenty of Water: Encourage your cat to drink plenty of water, as good hydration is always good for recovery.

Keep the Nose and Eyes Clean: Gently wipe away any discharge from your cat’s eyes and nose with a soft, clean, damp cloth. This will help make them more comfortable as well as reduce the risk of secondary eye infections.

Stimulate Appetite: Cats that are under the weather might lose their appetite, often because they can’t smell their food. Encourage them to eat by warming up their food to make it more aromatic, or try feeding them a highly palatable canned food. If your cat refuses to eat, contact your veterinarian.

Use Humidifiers: Humidifiers help humans with colds feel better, and it works for your cat too! Humidifiers can help ease congestion and make it easier for your cat to breathe. If you don’t have a humidifier, you can try placing the sick cat in a pet carrier, covering it with a blanket  and placing a bowl of hot water outside of the front of the cage under the blanket.

Does My Cat Have A Cold - a silver shorthair tabby cat sleeping on a white blanket

How NOT to Treat a Cat at Home!

As a veterinarian, the thing that worries me the most when cat owners want to treat their cat’s cold at home is that they will treat their cat like it is a person. This is an extremely dangerous thing to do! While cats may think they are really people, their bodies are quite different from ours. 

One of the worst things people can do is give their cat medicine that is intended for people. Human medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin CAN and WILL kill your cat! Human cold medications contain these ingredients, plus others that can be harmful to cats.

Another very dangerous thing that cat owners may be tempted to try is treating them with essential oils. Cats are very sensitive to certain compounds found in many essential oils, and some of them can be very toxic to cats. For example, using eucalyptus oil on a cat or in a vaporizer can be lethal. 

NEVER give your cat any sort of medication unless it has been prescribed by a veterinarian. 

How Did My Indoor Cat Catch a Cold?

Contrary to what some might think, being indoors doesn’t entirely protect cats from common cold-causing viruses like feline herpesvirus and calicivirus. 

These viruses can easily spread in multi-cat households or if a new pet is introduced. Even minimal exposure to the outdoors, like an open window or balcony, can be a risk factor, especially if other animals are nearby. Additionally, humans can inadvertently bring in viruses on their clothing or shoes. 

Vaccination is key to preventing colds in indoor cats (and outdoor cats, for that matter). Vaccines specifically targeting common respiratory diseases are important for protecting your cat’s health.

What Happens if a Cat Cold is Left Untreated?

If a cat cold is left untreated, most cats will recover uneventfully so long as they remain indoors and have access to food and water and a quiet place to rest and recover.

However, in some cases, untreated cat colds can lead to complications. The risk is particularly high if it is a kitten, a senior cat, or has a weakened immune system.

Possible complications include secondary bacterial infections, which can result in more severe respiratory symptoms or spread to other parts of the body. 

In rare cases, chronic respiratory issues or long-term damage to the nasal passages or lungs can occur, posing long-term health risks. This is why monitoring your cat’s symptoms and seeking veterinary care when needed is so important.

Even if a cold seems mild, a vet can provide guidance on supportive care and identify any signs of potential complications early. This proactive approach ensures that a simple cold doesn’t escalate into a more serious health issue.

Does My Cat Have A Cold - brown tabby cat stretched out sleeping on top of a wood table

Conclusion

Managing a cat with a cold requires a blend of attentive care, a nurturing environment, and an understanding of when veterinary care is necessary.  

While most cat colds are mild and can be managed at home, veterinary care is needed if symptoms persist or worsen. Remember never to self-medicate your cat as they have different sensitivities than humans and certain medications or substances can be extremely toxic for them.

By providing proper care and seeking medical advice when needed, you can help your cat recover.  

So rest easy knowing that with proper care and attention, your fur baby will be back to their playful self in no time. 

Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Always consult your veterinarian if you have specific concerns about your pet’s health.

Sources

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.