Snowshoe cat on vet table

Cat Flu: Symptoms, Treatment and Long-term Effects

5 min read

Flu in cats can be just like human flu: symptoms include a runny nose and achy muscles, and plenty of TLC is needed for recovery. Learn how to spot the signs and symptoms of flu and how it can be treated.

What are the symptoms of cat flu?

If you’ve ever been hit with the flu, you will have some sympathy for your cat. The illness isn’t all that different to the human variation. Just like in people, most cats can fight it off; however, for more elderly animals, kittens, or cats with an underlying condition, it can be more serious. Cat flu is generally viral, meaning that in most cases antibiotics won’t be effective.

Luckily there are vaccinations available. Although it’s not a guaranteed defence, vaccinating your cat will go a long way toward protecting them, particularly if you’re planning a trip to a cattery or any environment in which groups of cats are kept together.

What is cat flu?

Whether they’re sneezing or sniffling, the symptoms of cat flu can be fairly easy to identify once you know what you’re looking out for. Here’s a list of some of the more common signs to be aware of:

  • Sneezing: this is the main way in which the illness is spread. Just a few droplets from an infected cat’s sneeze can carry a distance of metres.
  • Runny nose.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Difficulty with, or noisy, breathing.
  • Dribbling.
  • Change in behaviour.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • High temperature.
  • In serious cases, ulcers around the eyes.

Symptoms can range vastly in severity: whereas one strain of the virus might only result in a bit of sneezing and a runny nose, another can lead to life-threatening complications.

However mild or serious the signs, don’t take a risk. As soon as you spot cat flu symptoms, take your pet to see the vet.

Is it contagious?

Cat flu, just like its pesky human equivalent, is very contagious. Sneezes from infected cats can project the virus metres, so direct contact isn’t always necessary for another cat to become infected.

To help prevent contraction make sure that your cat’s bedding, bowls, and litter tray are cleaned regularly. The virus can lurk in unexpected places and can even be transmitted by other people. Cats can be also become carriers of the illness without showing any signs of the sickness itself.

The only way to help prevent contamination is to clean your cat’s everyday items regularly and to keep infected pets away from others.

How is cat flu treated?

Although antibiotics can help with certain complications, there is currently no single cat flu treatment. Instead, keeping your cat comfortable and nursing them at home is the best way to get them better.

Keep their fluids up: encourage them to drink, as water can help to loosen catarrhal secretions. Steam can also help with this, so if they’re willing, you might try to keep your cat in the bathroom while you take a long, hot soak in the tub!

Try to keep their eyes and nose clear: gently wipe away any discharge that accumulates with cotton-wool pads dipped in salt water.

If their appetite is lacking, try and encourage them to eat. It may be that their throat is sore, so offer foods that aren’t hard to swallow. They may also have lost their sense of smell, so you can try to tempt them with stronger smelling foods.

In general keep your patient warm, dry, and comfortable, with all their favourite creature comforts close at hand! If you have other, uninfected cats in your household, create an isolated space for your cat to recover in. Furnish it with their litter tray and bed close by, and with plenty of fresh food and water readily available.

What are the long-term effects?

The majority of animals that contract cat flu will recover without any long-term impact on their health. The most common problem following a bout of illness is that your cat could become a carrier of the virus: there’s usually no way to tell, or to protect against it, but it does mean that they will be potentially infectious to other animals.

It could be that your cat will have minor recurrences of the illness during stressful times. Sometimes they can also be left suffering with ‘chronic rhitis’ (a permanently runny nose).

In the worst cases, some cats will suffer from prolonged ‘gingivitis’ (inflammation of the mouth), which requires drug treatment and, occasionally, tooth extraction.

Another concern can be damage to the eyes caused by ulcers. This can lead to long-term impairment, and may even mean the removal of an eye. Look out for sore, drooping, or partially closed eyes: if you spot these signs, get them straight to a vet.

In most cases cats will recover in a matter of weeks. To make sure your pet gets back to their healthy and happy self, seek early advice from a vet.

With the outbreak of Coronavirus many owners wonder how to best take care of their cat during this uncertain time. We've answered the most frequently asked questions about Coronavirus and pets here.