Reducing the Risk of Respiratory Infection in Cats

Photo by Whale in Clouds.

By Dr. Carl Palazzolo, DVM, Long Beach Animal Hospital 

Stress is certainly a factor in disease transmission and outbreak in cats. For new feline additions to the household, a “soft intro” is best—that is, providing a separate environment for the new arrival and allowing a very slow introduction to any resident cats and dogs. This minimizes initial stress that can predispose a newly arrived cat to getting a respiratory infection. As time goes on, the stress level reduces and the new cat adjusts.

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Cats coming from a colony or a multi-cat population such as an animal shelter or a breeder tend to harbor upper-respiratory viruses and bacteria. Even a very clean, well-managed facility can still produce kittens with infections, since they may have been transmitted across the placenta or been exposed by their mothers who are shedding viruses but showing no signs of disease.

Any new cat in your household should be first examined by a veterinarian and tested for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. They then should be isolated at home for a period of time to make sure they are not incubating an upper-respiratory infection that is highly contagious to the other cats in the household.

Vaccination is an essential component of disease prevention and control. A kitten’s immune system is naive, that is, it hasn’t been exposed to the viruses or bacteria it needs to protect itself against. To help protect a kitten from viruses when its immune system cannot protect it, it receives antibodies from the mother when it nurses. These are called maternal antibodies. They last for a variable period of time that is different for each kitten. When they diminish, the kitten is susceptible to the virus.

To protect these kittens from several viral diseases, vaccines are administered.Vaccines use an inactivated, small portion of the offending virus to stimulate the immune system to make antibodies against that virus. These vaccines do not work well if the antibodies that the mother gives a kitten are in high enough amounts.

It is unknown when these maternal antibodies diminish to the point that the kitten is susceptible. This is why vaccines are given in a series, each administration no more than one month apart, starting at eight weeks, and going to 12 weeks. This helps increase the odds that the kitten is making its own antibodies to the virus just as the maternal antibodies are no longer in high enough amount to do this important job. Ideally, we should give these vaccines every two weeks during this time to increase the chance that the vaccine is stimulating the production of antibodies just as the maternal antibodies decrease.

Three vaccines in one injection are generally given for these respiratory diseases. The FVRCP covers three viral infections: feline viral rhinotracheitis (feline herpes), calici and panleukopenia. A separate vaccine covers feline leukemia. Sadly, there is no effective vaccine for feline immunodeficiency virus.

A rabies vaccine is given at 16 weeks of age, and then all are boostered annually for outdoor cats and every three years for indoor cats.

Minimizing stress, completing the vaccination series early, and thorough intervention in an upper-respiratory infection if it appears are all crucial components of prevention and management of the sneezing kitty. New additions to the household and any cat showing signs of respiratory infection (weepy, irritated eyes, nasal discharge, sneezing) should be isolated from other cats and seen immediately by your veterinarian.

For more information, visit the Feline Diseases page on our website. 

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