Breathing is a bodily function that healthy, normal animals usually do not think too much about.The process is controlled automatically by the brain and nervous system. The respiratory system of an animal has a lower and an upper part. The nose and throat make up the upper respiratory tract and the trachea and lungs make up the lower respiratory tract.Both parts must be functioning for a cat to breathe normally. Animals exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide by breathing. Oxygen is essential to maintaining life and body functions,so if an animal becomes starved of oxygen, it will die. Some of the diseases that affect the respiratory tract of cats are life threatening, but others are more of a nuisance and discomfort for the animal.This chapter will introduce you to some of the most common disorders of the feline respiratory system. A cat’s respiratory anatomy is very similar to ours. Although our noses are shaped differently,and theirs are hairier,the functions are the same.Air enters into the body through the nostrils (or, less often, the mouth).Mucus and small hairs cover the lining of the nasal passages and trap small particles and bacteria in the air.The air is warmed and moisturized as it passes through the nasal cavity and into the lower airways.
Cats cannot blow their noses, and unfortunately because of this they sneeze out a lot of junk.This sounds gross,and it is.Sneezing is a nonspecific sign that occurs when the nasal passages become stimulated by secretions or an irritant. There is no “cure”for sneezing because there are so many different causes.Possible causes of sneezing include:
• Viral infections
• Bacterial infections
• Fungal infections
• Foreign objects
Antihistamines,decongestants and nasal sprays for humans are usually not very useful for sneezing cats.If you have a sneezing cat,the best thing to do is have her examined by a veterinarian,so that a cause can be determined and a specific treatment suggested. Although examining your cat’s nasal discharge is not a pleasant task, the color and consistency hold clues.In general,if the discharge is clear and watery,it is nothing to worry about.If the discharge is green,yellow or bloody,medical care is required.Cats can get bloody noses from dry air and irritation, just like we do, but a bloody nose can also be a sign of severe infection or even a nasal tumor.
Although most cats with allergies have itchy skin,some do sneeze.Cats can be allergic to just about anything in the world, including pollen, house dust and even kitty litter.Allergies usually produce a clear discharge when the animal sneezes.Allergies can be managed, but they can’t be cured. It can be quite difficult to determine specifically which allergen is causing the cat to sneeze.Although it is impossible to test a cat for all possible allergens, your vet can test for some common ones. If specific allergens are identified,you can either remove them from the environment or try to desensitize the animal with allergy shots.
Smoke,cleaning products and even a cat’s own hair can irritate the nasal passages and cause sneezing.To determine if an irritant is causing the sneezing, it must be removed from the environment and then the sneezing must cease. Cigarette smoke can be very irritating to cats, and cats are susceptible to all of the problems of secondhand smoke that humans are.These include sneezing,bronchitis and even lung cancer.If you smoke,try to keep the smoke away from your cat.
Cats are like small children; they are subject to accidents, and objects can become lodged in their noses.The most common object to get stuck in a cat’s nose is a blade of grass.If you have a cat who sneezes 8 to 10 times in a row, it might be due to a foreign object stuck in her nose. It can be difficult for a veterinarian to find something in a cat’s nose without sedating the animal.Most cats are not thrilled with the idea of having a scope put up their nostril or keeping their mouth open while a veterinarian probes the back of the mouth. In some cases a special fiber optic scope is needed to look into the rear nasal passages.This is called rhinoscopy.
How You Can Help Alleviate Sneezing
Wiping a cat’s nose and keeping it free of discharge will help improve the animal’s comfort.If the cat sounds congested,you may try putting her in a steamy bathroom or in a small room with a vaporizer to help open up the airways. Seek veterinary advice if the sneezing persists or if the cat is showing signs of discomfort.
CATS DO CATCH COLDS
Upper respiratory infections are common in cats, and they can be caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infections. These kitty colds can range from mild to severe, with kittens being the most susceptible to infection.Cats are routinely vaccinated against some of the agents that cause upper respiratory infections.However,vaccines only decrease the severity of the clinical signs and do not completely prevent infection.
Upper respiratory infections can last a few days to weeks, so it important to monitor your cat’s clinical signs and work with a veterinarian if you are not seeing any improvement.These colds can be very annoying and frustrating infections to deal with. Stress and crowding are two factors that increase the risk of an upper respiratory infection.It is very common for a cat who has been adopted from a shelter or foster home to start off healthy,only to develop a cold shortly after her arrival in her new home.The animal was likely exposed to a microorganism that caused the infection before she was adopted, but the stress of being in a new home weakened her immune system and triggered the infection.
Viruses are the most common cause of kitty colds.The good news about viruses is that they go away on their own over time,but the bad news is that it can take a long time and there is not any specific treatment or cure.The clinical signs typical of a viral upper respiratory infection are sneezing, runny nose, runny eyes, mild lethargy, decreased appetite and fever. A veterinarian may treat a cat with a viral upper respiratory infection with fluids, antibiotics, ophthalmic medication, pediatric nasal sprays, antihistamines, immunostimulants or with nothing at all. Treatment depends on the clinical signs exhibited by the cat. Two immunostimulants used by many veterinarians are l-lysine,an amino acid supplement that has shown antiviral effects,and alpha interferon, a genetically engineered human product that has effects against viral RNA,DNA and cellular proteins. Most veterinarians will base their diagnosis of a viral upper respiratory infection on their interpretation of the animal’s clinical signs. Definitively diagnosing viral upper respiratory infections is difficult
because the lab tests that isolate viruses are expensive, can take weeks for results and may only be 50 percent accurate.Don’t get too frustrated if your veterinarian cannot make a positive call on the cause of infection.Continue to pursue treatment options if you think your cat is uncomfortable. Feline rhinotracheitis is a very common cause of upper respiratory infection,and because it is a herpes virus,it can cause recurrent disease. Cats infected with rhinotracheitis can have colds and conjunctivitis off and on as kittens,but they tend to grow out of it by the time they are two years old.
Bacterial upper respiratory infections can occur on their own or as secondary infections along with viruses.The clinical signs associated with bacterial infections are:
• Enlarged lymph nodes
• Yellow to green discharge from the nose and/or eyes
• Decrease in or loss of appetite
Treatment is aimed at killing the bacteria and supporting the cat. Treatment can include antibiotics,fluids,ophthalmic medications,antihistamines,pediatric nasal sprays,immunostimulants and hand feeding. Bacterial cultures are not routinely run on cats that develop acute upper respiratory infections,but they may be performed if the infection does not resolve,worsens or becomes chronic.
Culturing the specific bacteria that are causing an upper respiratory infection is difficult, because the nose is also the home of many normal bacteria that can contaminate a culture. To get a more reliable culture specimen the cat should be sedated, sterile saline flushed into a nostril, and a sample collected from the back of the nasal passages.
Fungal upper respiratory infections occur occasionally,with Cryptococcus neoformans being the most common fungus. Cats with compromised immune systems, such as those infected with FeLV or FIV, are most at risk for developing fungal upper respiratory infections.This fungus can be found in bird droppings and,as unlikely as it seems,it can affect cats who live indoors. Fungal upper respiratory infections are usually slowly progressive and do not improve with antibiotic treatment.As fungal infections progress they can cause growths in the nostrils and bulging of the sinuses.Fungal upper respiratory infections may be diagnosed by examining a smear of nasal discharge microscopically, by performing a blood test for Cryptococcus or other fungi common in your area,or by a biopsy or needle aspirate of a nasal growth.Antifungal drugs are effective against fungus,but the treatment may last months and the drugs are quite expensive.
If the Cold Doesn’t Go Away
If treatment by your veterinarian is not helping, more aggressive care and hospitalization may be needed. Other diagnostic tests should be done that will look for other diseases that can mimic upper respiratory infections,including:
• Complete blood count and blood chemistries
• FeLV and FIV tests
• Microscopic evaluation of nasal discharge