If you’ve rescued a kitten and you’re hearing tiny sneezes and seeing discharge from the eyes and/or nose, your kitten likely has an upper respiratory infection (URI).
Before you panic, URIs are very common—a high proportion of kittens rescued from shelters or outside show symptoms due to their decreased immunity and high risk of exposure to bacterial and viral agents.
The most common viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in cats are Feline Herpesvirus Type-1 (feline viral rhinotracheitis or FVR) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV), and the most common bacteria are Bordetella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica) and Chlamydophila felis (C. felis).
How do kittens get upper respiratory infections?
The most susceptible kittens are orphaned kittens, those under four weeks, and FeLV or FIV positive kittens.
Upper respiratory infections spread through direct contact, like eye, nose, and mouth secretions. It’s also spread via contamination of hands/clothing of people, surfaces and bedding, and fur.
Even cats that appear healthy can shed the virus. A high percentage of cats have been infected with the virus at some point in their lives—even if they never showed symptoms. Cats can periodically shed the virus, especially during times of stress.
While URIs are not a zoonotic disease (you won’t get sick from your cat), you can spread the virus between kittens. This is why it’s important to always wash hands and change clothing between handling sick and healthy kittens.
What are the symptoms of upper respiratory infections?
It takes less than a week after exposure for the virus to incubate, and the kitten to start showing signs of illness.
The most common symptoms are:
- Discharge from the eyes and/or nose
- Refusal to eat/nurse
- Fever or low body temperature
- Corneal, oral, or nasal ulcers
Do I need to see the vet?
Tiny kittens are very fragile, so a visit to the vet is always recommended.
Your vet will likely prescribe antibiotics to help speed recovery, and prevent a secondary bacterial infection (which can be very dangerous for a tiny kitten). If eye discharge or conjunctivitis are a concern, your vet will probably prescribe an ophthalmic antibiotic.
At-home care for upper respiratory infections
There are a few things you can do at home to help make your kitten more comfortable and aid in recovery.
Keep them clean
Use a warm compress to gently remove and discharge from your kitten’s eyes and nose, as needed.
Clear any congestion
If you have a warm vaporizer or humidifier, put it in the room with your kitten to help clear the airways. You can also bring your kitten into the bathroom while you shower—the steam will help loosen any mucus. Little Remedies Saline Drops can relieve runny or stuffy noses and are kitten-safe.
Monitor hydration levels
Check for dehydration by pinching the skin above the shoulders and pulling up gently. If the skin doesn’t snap back right away, your kitten is likely dehydrated. If the skin stays up, that’s a sign of severe dehydration, and you should visit your vet immediately. Treat slight dehydration at-home with unflavored Pedialyte. Simply add a little to their wet food (if they’re eating well), or give by dropper or needle-less oral syringe. The typical dosage is two to four milliliters of Pedialyte three times a day, but always check with your vet first.
Keep them nourished
Kittens won’t eat what they can’t smell, so nasal congestion can be very serious. Try enticing your kitten to eat with wet food—add a little warm water to bring out the smell. If your kitten simply won’t eat, you may have to try syringe feeding or tube feeding (only with training!).