What to Know About Cat Flu

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 26, 2021
4 min read

If you notice that your feline friend is feeling under the weather, it’s possible that they may have cat flu. This is a common illness that affects both adult cats and kittens alike. 

Can Cats Get the Flu?

Cats can get infected with influenza viruses just like humans can. Experts think that cat flu spreads in the same way that flu viruses spread in humans. One way is through direct contact with other cats, like when they play or snuggle together. Another way could be through droplets in the air. These droplets come from sneezing or coughing and have some kind of discharge. Cats can also get the flu by coming into contact with something that has been contaminated with a virus, like shared cages or food bowls. Research suggests that humans might be able to pass viruses to cats during flu season, but so far there’s not enough evidence to say that it works the other way around, too.

Cat flu is a term used to describe an upper respiratory infection (URI) that is normally caused by one of two viruses: feline calicivirus (FCV) or feline herpes virus (FHV or FHV-1). It is not caused by an influenza virus. Once a cat has been infected with these viruses that cause cat flu, it’s possible that they will carry the virus for the rest of their life. Even with treatment, your cat may still continue to have lifelong symptoms.

The symptoms of cat flu are actually quite similar to symptoms that humans experience when they have the flu. The most common symptoms include:

  • Inflamed throat
  • Runny nose or discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing (a gagging noise)
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Drooling or dribbling
  • Fever
  • Loss of voice
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye) or eye discharge
  • Low energy
  • Loss of appetite

Once your cat has been infected with the flu virus, it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to appear. Kittens are also likely to develop eye ulcers, which can potentially cause eye damage if left untreated. Both kittens and senior cats have weaker immune systems than healthy adult cats do. This can cause them to have more serious symptoms or to even develop a secondary condition that is caused by the cat flu. For example, your cat could develop pneumonia, a secondary respiratory infection, dehydration, or lack of nutrition.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your cat, you should contact your vet. To diagnose your cat, your doctor will give them an exam to check their symptoms and rule out anything else that might be causing their condition. Sometimes, vets may order a nose or eye swab test to confirm the presence of the FCV or FHV virus. The swabs are then sent to a lab where the virus can be identified through culture or PCR tests.

Medications. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to fight off the infection, or anti-inflammatories to help lower the fever. If your cat is having trouble breathing due to a runny nose, mucolytics (medicines that break up mucus) can help clear their airways and remove mucus. Eye drops can help heal irritated, sore eyes.

At home. At-home care is really important when it comes to treating cat flu. Your cat’s symptoms may cause them not to want to eat or to make their normal food hard to eat. Entice them by giving them small fish, like sardines, or roast chicken in small pieces. Your vet may also prescribe special food to help ensure your cat is properly nourished.

Help your cat out by gently wiping away discharge from the eyes and nose when you see it. You can use saltwater on a damp cloth to wipe away the discharge. Steam helps to break apart mucus, so let your cat come in the bathroom with you while you shower or take a bath.

The best way to protect your cat from cat flu is by getting them vaccinated against the viruses that cause cat flu. Your cat will need two flu vaccines followed by booster shots throughout their life. While vaccination may not be able to stop your cat from ever getting the flu, it can help them from developing serious symptoms.

If you have multiple cats and one of them is ill, keep the infected one isolated as much as possible to help stop the spread of the virus. Make sure that shared items, like bowls and litter boxes, are disinfected after use to kill off any remaining bacteria.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Blue Cross for Pets: “Cat flu.”

Cats Protection: “About Cat Flu.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Influenza in Cats.”

International Cat Care: “Cat Flu — Upper Respiratory Infection.”

RSPCA Australia: “What is cat flu and how is it managed?”

The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals: “Cat flu.”

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