Can I Cure My Cats' Upper Repiratory Infections Myself?

CatChannel veterinary expert Arnold Plotnick, DVM, shares reasons why cat owners should leave medical treatment to cat vets.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM | Updated: April 29, 2015, 5 p.m. EST

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Cat Upper Respiratory Infection
Q: I have 10 cats: three cats over age 5, two between ages 3 and 5 (adopted cats) and four aged 16 months (an adopted cat litter). All are indoor cats and have been spayed or neutered.
Earlier this week, one of the younger cats had serious coughing like a hairball, but wasn’t expelling or passing anything. I gave my cat two does of hairball medicine and that has stopped. Now, all four young cats have problems. One cat started with the sneezing and now all are sneezing a very wet sneeze, two cats have slightly weepy eyes and cat has a slight runny nose.  The cats’ appetites are still good and the cats still drink water and want cat treats.

With 10 cats, I can’t afford to take them to a vet. A friend had pets with upper-respiratory infections and said its sounds like my cats have the same thing. This friend said a local feed store sells antibiotics with syringes. She said if one of my cats has an upper respiratory infection that they all will get it and, left untreated, it could kill them.

A: It sounds like you have an outbreak of cat upper respiratory infection going through your menagerie. These fast facts explain what to expect:
  • Upper respiratory infections are usually caused by a virus, either the herpes virus, the calici virus or both.
  • Sneezing is the most common sign, as well as a discharge from the eyes and nose, drooling, congestion and decreased appetite.
  • Treatment of cat URIs requires supportive care mainly with oral antibiotics. Stubborn cases might require antiviral drugs and medicated eye ointments. The amino acid lysine is often beneficial in helping cats recover from URI symptoms caused by the herpes virus.
  • Your friend is not correct in assuming that ALL of your cats will come down with it. It depends on how virulent the strain of this particular virus, the vaccination status of the cats in the house, and each cat’s individual immune system.
  • Your friend is also incorrect by saying that your cats might die if the infection is untreated. I suppose if one of your cats was severely affected and stopped eating and drinking for a few days, it could theoretically die from the infection, but it would be rare.
  • Ideally, all of your affected cats should be examined by your veterinarian, but with 10 cats, I suppose that can be difficult, logistically, as well as financially. I would NOT go to a local feed store to get antibiotics. I imagine these antibiotics are meant for food animals, not cats and dogs. Even if the owner of the feed store tries to explain to you how to adjust the dosage to make it appropriate for cats, do NOT do this. The antibiotics might not be suitable for cats, and there is a high risk of overdosing your cats.
  • I think your best bet is to take the sickest one or two cats to the vet and have your cat vet prescribe medication. Technically, your cats’ veterinarian is not allowed to prescribe medication to a cat that your vet has never seen before, but if the affected cats have been to your vet in the past, and you tell your vet that a URI is spreading through your household, your cat vet may dispense antibiotics for the other affected cats. Certainly, your cat vet can dispense lysine to all of your cats; it is just an amino acid supplement.   

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