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What causes Respiratory Problems in Cats?

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Cat Respiratory Problems
Suvi Pohjola-Stenroos, DVM, PhD

Chlamydia psittaci

Feline upper respiratory problems occur very often, especially in cattery cats. They may be caused by viral infections or bacteria or both. Besides infectious agents we sometimes can determine that symptoms are caused by inhalent allergens (those will not be covered by this article).

Herpesvirus (rhinotracheitis)
Herpes infection is the most prevalent disease in cattery cats. The virus genome remains in the trigeminal ganglion in the head until the animal is stressed. Then the virus is activated, grows down into the nerve and reinfects the mucosal cells where it replicates and is shed. Animals that are infected remain latent carriers, that is they will shed the virus whenever they are stressed. The first episode will normally last several weeks, but recurrent infection lasts 3-10 days.

Clinical signs are ocular or systemic:

Bilateral keroconjunctivitis, and some corneal ulcers may be seen especially in those breeds with large eyes. The eyes are very painful. The cat will keep the eyes mostly closed, and massive production of tears can be observed.

Systemic signs include rhinitis, that is an inflammation of the nasal mucosa. So the cat will sneeze. First the secretion is watery, but later on it will appear mucopurulent, because the mucosal lining will ulcerate and secondary bacteria will adhere.

Some cats will develop chronic rhinitis/sinusitis due to the permanent turbinate damage of the nasal cavity.

Pneumonia in very young kittens may lead to rapid death.

The diagnosis of herpes virus infection is made by culturing nasal, ocular or oropharyngal exudates. Also intranuclear inclusion bodies can sometimes be seen in cell scrapings taken from the conjunctiva.

The treatment includes antiviral drugs (ophtalmic solutions in the eyes), systemic antibiotics to prevent secondary bacteria, fluids if necessary and other supportive care in the acute phase.

In chronic cases you can keep the nasal passages clear for example with Neosynephrine (use every day).

Steroids (cortisone) are always contraindicated as they reactivate the infection and suppress immunity. Steroids also prevent corneal ulcers from healing.

Prevention is the most important task. Vaccinate your cat properly.
Do not use modified live vaccines because you bring live virus contamination to your cattery. Especially if you suspect corneal ulceration never use modified live vaccines.

Calici is very common, about 20% of cats shed this virus. There are several strains, and vaccine strains are not necessarily the same as those that occur in catteries. Calici is shed from oropharynx into the saliva, some is shed via feces.

Calicivirus infection is best treated with supportive care. Put the cat on a soft food diet which allows the lesions to heal.

Chronic cats should be tested for FelV and FIV infection. Preventive treatment is best.

Chlamydia psittaci
Chlamydia is a bacteria and common in cattery cats. Primarly affects kittens around weaning when they have poor maternal immunity left. Kittens are infected by adult cats or older kittens. Transmission occurs through feces and discharges (eye and nose). recovered cats may become carriers and often don't develop good immunity. Recurrent infections may happen, but often they devrease with maturation of the immune system.

Clinical signs are: unilateral conjunctivits, also severe conjunctivitis in the unopened eyes of the newborn kitten is possible. Some young kittens (2-4 weeks) may develop fatal pneumonia leading to death. Often we don't see the respiratory signs at all, we just see the death.

Chlamydia also induces reproductive problems and abortion. Diagnosis in chlamydial problems is based on examination of conjunctival scrapings, or so called IFA-test.

Chlamydial infections are best treated with tetracyclins and their derivates, treatment time may be long, and dosing should be continued for 2 weeks after the resolution of the clinical signs.

Preventive measures includes good cattery management, especially hygiene.

Bacteria. Cattery cats are susceptible, recovered animals my become carriers. Mycoplasma is shed in exudates.

Signs are mainly ocular: uni- or bilateral conjunctivitis, not very painful. The cat can get concurrent chlamydial infection. Systemic signs may develop in 3-4 weeks old kittens. Mycoplasma may induce abortion in the queen. Diagnosis is made by conjunctival scrapings and also by culturing in special agar plates. There is no vaccine available.

Treatment is with tetracyclins or their derivates at least for 2 weeks. This antibiotic is static for the bacteria, thus the cat's immunity must kick the bacteria away.


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