Respiratory Disease Complex in Cats
Many cats have had an episode of upper respiratory infection (URI) while only a kitten. Most cats recover from the initial and recurring episodes with only a little help. However, susceptible animals can become severely infected. Kittens are usually the hardest hit by this disease. Signs of respiratory disease may be one or more of the following; sneezing, cough, discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth, difficult breathing, gagging, lack of appetite, and weight loss. There may be ulcers in the mouth, or on the tongue or nose. The conjunctiva of the eyes may become swollen, red and pillowy with conjunctivitis. Panophthalmitis is when many of the ocular tissues are infected and inflamed. The cornea may develop ulcers. Severe infections can lead to pneumonia. The virus may enter the middle ear, causing an otitis media. Severe irreversible damage may occur to the fragile nasal sinus turbinates (very thin bones). The infection can cause scarring in the lacrimal (tear) ducts that can cause a permanent blockage. Some infections last only a few days, while others may be present for weeks or months. Cats can become severely dehydrated and/or emaciated from the disease. They may not be able to breathe through their noses, as normal, being forced to breathe through their mouth. Additionally, cats that cannot smell will not eat, and if they have oral lesions, they may salivate so profusely as to cause dehydration.
Various infectious organisms have been isolated from the respiratory tract of cats. Most of these organisms are contagious, and some can cause fatal disease. These organisms include rhinotracheitis virus, calicivirus, Chlamydia psittaci, bordetella, reoviruses, Mycoplasma, and various bacteria. In most cases, isolation of the offending organism is neither necessary nor cost-effective. More than one organism may be involved in any disease episode.
Cats that have minimal exposure, have been vaccinated, and live a low stress lifestyle are less like to have an URI episode. Respiratory diseases are transmitted by direct contact with infected cats or discharges from their eyes, nose, mouth, or other body fluids. Cats in animal shelters, multicat households, catteries, or have been boarded or hospitalized are at high risk. Cats that have exposure to neighboring cats are at risk. Contaminated clothing, hands, feeding utensils, grooming equipment, and other articles spread some of these organisms. In a few cases, the organisms are air-borne for short distances. Some of these disease agents exist in a carrier state in apparently healthy cats. Cats may be found to harbor some of the organisms for years without being clinically ill. However, with stress, an episode may develop. This is one of the main reasons why the disease is so prevalent; so many cats carry the organism.
Vaccination is meant to prevent clinical disease if your cat becomes infected. Vaccination may not completely prevent a disease episode, but should considerably reduce the severity and duration of the disease if it does occur. Traditionally, vaccination for Feline Rhinotracheitis, Calici virus, and Panleukopenia has been a yearly booster after the initial kitten series. With increased scientific knowledge, we are now vaccinating only every 2-3 years after the cat is 1