Friday, March 6, 2009

Cat Upper Respiratory Infections--Feline URI

Dear Dr. Gordon: My cat must have the worst cold of all time. She has been sneezing with a runny nose for well over 3 months now. The antibiotics the vet prescribed did not work. What can I do to stop it? I have tried everything. TB

Dear TB: First and foremost, any cat that has chronic "cold symptoms" should be evaluated by your veterinarian again. It is very likely something other than a "common cold."

Think about it. Pets get colds just like people do and exhibit many of the same symptoms. Colds are caused by upper respiratory viruses that we contract through exposure when these viruses are expelled by others when they cough and/or sneeze. We currently do not believe that human cold viruses can cause upper respiratory illness in dogs and cats (and vice versa). The signs and duration of cold symptoms is fairly classic: first there is the scratchy throat which then progresses to the stuffy nose, sneezing, and (sometimes) coughing phase. The good news is that most cold symptoms are gone within a couple of weeks (at the most). This holds true for our pets as well.

Occasionally, in weakened, geriatric or debillitated people and pets, upper respiratory illness can progress into the lower respiratory tree and create pneumonias. Pneumonia is sometimes very difficult to detect (evidenced by people who sometimes carry out their normal activities despite having "walking pneumonia"). Usually, however, pneumonia presents with a deep, productive (or wet) cough, sometimes with fever, and usually with lethargy and lack of appetite. All pneumonias are serious and require long term care and physician follow-up. Although the doctor is sometimes able to detect changes in the lung fields when listening to the patient breathing with a stethascope, this is sometimes very difficult to detect. After all, I can't tell my patients to "take a deep breath and hold it" like our human counterparts can. The best way to determine if pneumonia is present is to take x-rays of the chest. Bacterial pneumonias usually respond to long term antibiotic therapy, but follow up x-rays are essential in following the course of the pneumonia.

If the pnemonia is not responding to antibiotics, there is probably another cause for the pneumonia. Through sophisticated testing, the veterinarian hopefully will be able to determine the cause. Sometimes, allergies (see suggestions below), fungi, inflammation, or cancer can cause pneumonias. The doctor may recommend diagnostic procedures like bronchoscopy or a "tracheal wash". This requires that the patient be sedated and a flexible endoscope in placed into the respiratory tree to obtain samples for analysis. This procedure is usually done if symptoms of pneumonia persist, without improvement or resolution.

The pet with chronic "cold symptoms" ( sneezing, nasal discharge, and coughing) that is unresponsive to medical management, presents a huge challenge for the veterinarian. In recommending the more sophisticated diagnostic procedures, the doctor is hoping to find a cause to the problem that can be cured. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as cancer becomes more and more prevalent in older pets with unresolved or chronic nasal discharge.

One additional possibility for the "cold symptoms" could be a food or environmental allergy. This can be a likely cause if your cat is young and displays gastrointestinal issues as well (diarrhea, for example). Work with your veterinarian or seek the advice of a holistic veterinary professional (consultations are available for this at to develop a hypoallergenic diet for your cat. In addition, you can try using immune support supplements such as Probiotic, Proaller and Samento available at to see if they will help.