You just adopted a kitten from the local shelter. She had sneezed a few times at the shelter but you hadn’t given it a lot of thought. When you got her home and she stopped eating, started with mucus from both nostrils and eyes and sprayed the room with her sneezes every few minutes you started to wonder whether or not she was a good idea. You put your new kitty in the cardboard carrier you brought her home in and rush her into the vet’s office. They tell you that she has a complex of diseases she was most likely exposed to as a kitten and that this condition was exacerbated by the stress of being in the shelter. Before you start to think it was the shelter’s fault however, let’s quickly get into what your cat has going on and why.
The major contributor to Feline Upper Respiratory Complex are viruses that your new kitten was most likely exposed to long before she arrived at the shelter. Because many of the cats that are surrendered to shelters, or the cats that are dropped there by animal control, have a herpes infection that is not currently causing disease it is not necessarily something that even the best disease prevention program can address. The shelter situation, no matter how well done, is going to be stressful for the feline participants. There is a lot of shuffling between cages to clean and keep angry neighbors apart. There are also a lot of sexually intact cats that come through the front doors of any busy shelter and their attitudes do not help in lowering the stressful conditions. This stress causes a drop in the immune systems ability to respond to disease. When this happens, the viral infection that your kitty was keeping in check has a chance to rise to the surface. The most common offender is the feline herpes-virus. It will manifest itself first as runny, watery eyes, light sneezing and maybe a bit of conjunctivitis.
Ok so maybe that’s why your new kitty is sneezing but what can we do to help her? Here is where many vets are going to differ a bit. This is yet another one of those times I feel compelled to inform you that this blog contains my opinions (professional though they may be they are opinions) about best medicine and current therapies. The following is what I would consider to be the best course of treatement for an owned cat with an upper respiratory issue.
I start with hydration, keeping your new kitten well hydrated is an important part of treatment. It makes the mucus secretions less viscous and allows for better expectoration of particles. It also helps in keeping inflammation at a minimum. If your new kitty is eating well and only sneezing a bit I may give her a small amount of fluids under her skin and ask you to place her in a room with a humidifier running when you go to bed. Sometimes that is all it takes.
If the sneezing has been going on for awhile, is getting worse or if she is breathing with her mouth open or not eating I will get a bit more aggressive. Treatment for these cats will include the fluids and humidifier but we will now add in some decongestants. Oral and nasal decongestants are available. I tend to use a lot of diphenhydramine but there are many available. If there is conjunctivitis present I will also add in some eye drops. Many of the drugs I would reach for here are available over the counter and will not require a prescription nor will they be terribly expensive. Not eating for a young cat is a big deal however, and I have started adding in an antiviral drug at this point. This is not an over the counter and will require a prescription. It will also require you to get a pill into your kitty. Good luck.
If stage 2 treatment plans are not making in a dent in your kitty’s upper respiratory disease we will start to have a conversation about further diagnostics. I probably won’t be too pushy at this point but I will at least put it on your radar. A cat should really be getting better by now. Here I am going to start to actively address some of the other issues with your cat’s respiratory system. Anti-inflammatories may make an appearance in this case. A brand of drugs called leukotriene receptor antagonists are useful in controlling the inflammation involved in the disease process as well. It is typically here that people start to ask about antibiotics. I am not huge on just prescribing out antibiotics for, well anything really. I like to know that there is a bacterial component to the disease I am trying to treat and I really like to know what the bacteria is and what kills it before prescribing an antibiotic. If the discharge has changed in consistency or color or if there is a fever present I may be convinced to add in an antibiotic at this point. If I am going to add in an antibiotic I try to choose ones that will also mediate the immune system and help to control inflammation at the same time.
If we are still having a problem now it’s been well over a month and it is time to get a bit more serious. Here I may start recommending sending in a culture for bacteria and funguses. I will definitely recommend retesting for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses. If we are talking about an older cat (not a kitten) I might even recommend biopsies of the nasal passage. With more information comes a much more tailored medical approach and discussion of what we might find would carry us well over the thousand word limit I typically set for myself each week.
In closing, don’t hate the shelters for adopting out a sneezing cat, it’s not their fault and they do a job many of us wouldn’t be strong enough to handle. Make sure you get your sneezing cat to the vet early on and be wary of vets that just reach for antibiotics in these cases. It won’t help and will end up costing you more than it has to.