Chronic Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (2022)

Chronic (long-term) upper respiratory tract (URT) disease (also known as chronic nasal discharge) is a relatively common problem in cats, and can have many causes.

The syndrome refers to chronic disease affecting the nose (nasal cavities) or the nasopharynx (the air passage immediately behind the nose). One of the most common forms is termed chronic post-viral rhinitis (inflammation or infection in the nose). In this condition, viral infection (eg, acute upper respiratory infection caused by feline herpesvirus – FHV or feline calicivirus – FCV) causes damage to the delicate mucosal lining inside the nose, and even to the fine turbinate bones within the nose; but the chronic signs relate to secondary bacterial infection that occurs as a result of the damaged nasal passages. This can lead to chronic persistent or intermittent signs with sneezing, nasal discharge and nasal congestion.

(Video) Respiratory Tract Infections: Common Causes – Respiratory Medicine | Lecturio

What are the common causes of chronic upper respiratory tract disease?

Many different diseases can cause long-term damage to the nose or nasopharynx and result in clinical disease. Some of the most important causes include:

  • Post-viral or idiopathic rhinitis– Acute upper respiratory infections with FCV or FHV are common in cats, especially young cats. The severity of these infections varies greatly between cats, but in some cases (especially with FHV infection) the viral infection may do permanent damage to the delicate mucosal lining of the nasal cavities and can also damage the underlying bone. This may result in permanent changes that leave the nasal cavity susceptible to long-term recurrent secondary bacterial infection. This is termed post-viral rhinitis (nasal inflammation), and is thought to be one of the most common causes of chronic rhinitis in cats. In severe cases, the bacterial infection can spread to the underlying bone and cause an osteomyelitis (infection within the bone). The sinuses in the bones around the nose can also be affected in chronic rhinitis, so the term rhino-sinusitis is sometimes used. It is not known how many cases of non-specific or idiopathic rhinitis are due to post-viral changes, but it is suspected that this may account for a substantial proportion.
  • Fungal infections– the single most common nasal fungal infection in cats is with the organism calledCrytpococcus neoformansorCrytpococcus gatii. Infections withCrytpococcus gatiiare more common in tropical and sub-tropical climates whereasCrytpococcus neoformanshas a wider distribution. Infection is acquired through inhalation of the organism from the environment. Other fungal organisms can also occasionally cause nasal infections in cats includingAspergillusand other organisms.
  • Inflammatory polyps– occasionally, multiple polyps (small inflammatory swellings/growths) arise within the nasal cavity. More commonly a large polyp arising from the middle ear or eustachian tube (the small tube that connects the nose to the middle ear) develops and this may grow within the nasopharynx causing obstruction to breathing.
  • Neoplasia (cancer)– the two most common forms of tumour affecting the nasal cavity are lymphoma (a solid tumour of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell) and adenocarcinoma.
  • Foreign bodies– in cats, the most common nasal foreign bodies are plant material such as blades of grass or grass seeds. These may be inhaled into the nose in some cases or may also become lodged in the nose after being vomited in a cat which has eaten them.
  • Allergic rhinitis– although uncommon, some cats will develop an allergic rhinitis that is similar to so-called ‘hay fever’ in humans.
  • Dental disease– sometimes severe dental disease may result in disease affecting the tooth root (e.g., abscess development) that may affect the nasal cavity.
  • Other conditions– a variety of other disease may occur, including disease due to facial conformation (e.g., extreme ‘flat-faced’ Persian cats), nasopharyngeal stenosis (where the nasopharynx becomes abnormally narrowed), and trauma.

What are the clinical signs of chronic URT disease?

The main signs of nasal and nasopharyngeal disease are:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Dsypnoea (or difficulty in breathing)
  • Sonorous breathing (‘snoring’) due to difficulty in breathing
  • Stertorous breathing (noisy breathing through the mouth due to obstruction to air flow through the nose or nasopharynx)

The nature of some of these signs may help your vet uncover the underlying cause of the disease:

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  • Does it affect one or both sides of the nose?
  • Is there discharge from one or both nostrils?
  • What is the nature of the nasal discharge – is it clear, watery, mucoid, purulent?
  • Is there any blood present in the discharge? (usually, but not always, a sign of more severe disease such as fungal infection or neoplasia)
  • Is there any facial swelling and change to the conformation of the face or nose? (usually, but not always, a sign of more severe disease such as fungal infection or neoplasia)
  • Is there any ocular discharge (‘runny eyes’) or involvement of the eyes?
  • Is there any evidence of involvement of the ears? (sometimes seen with inflammatory polyps in particular)
  • Is there any enlargement of the lymph nodes around the head and neck? – if so, these may need to be investigated too
  • Has there been any marked change in appetite or weight – cats with URT disease often have a reduced appetite, but marked weight loss may suggest a more severe disease
  • Did the clinical signs start suddenly or gradually?
  • Have the signs been getting progressively worse?

These are all questions your vet will probably ask, so it is a good idea to try to write down as much information as possible before you go to the vet with your cat.

Investigation of chronic URT disease in cats

Sometimes, on the basis of the history of your cat, the presenting clinical signs and the clinical examination, your vet may have a very good idea of what the underlying problem is and further investigations may not be necessary. However in other cases, and especially with severe disease, where clinical signs are getting worse, or where there is evidence of disease elsewhere as well, further investigations may be required.

What investigations are needed will vary from one case to another, but may include:

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  • Blood and urine tests – including investigation for FeLV and FIV when appropriate. Blood tests may also help to detect certain other infectious causes (such asCryptococcusinfection).
  • X-rays of the nose, pharynx, chest and possibly abdomen. These can be very valuable to look for changes within the nose and elsewhere. In some situations more advanced imaging (such as CT or MR scans) will be available and used – these can give much clearer images of the internal structures in the nose and pharynx.
  • Endoscopy (rhinoscopy) – while anaesthetised to take X-rays, your vet will also examine your cat more thoroughly – often by using a small endoscope placed through the opening of the nose and/or through the mouth to look at the back of the nose. This enables direct visualisation of some of the structures in the nose.
  • Biopsy – frequently a valuable technique, small biopsies can be collected from tissues within the nose to be examined histologically by a pathologist, and also for culture to see what organisms may be present. Collecting biopsies will cause a small amount of bleeding, but usually this is very minor.

It is also important to remember that many of these tests may return normal or non-specific results in cases of chronic post-viral rhinitis, as this is a disease that is often diagnosed by excluding other possible causes (with supportive evidence from biopsies etc.).

Treatment of chronic URT disease

Treatment of chronic URT disease will depend on the underlying cause. Some diseases will be curable, some manageable (to control clinical signs), but in some cases treatment may not be possible or appropriate for the cat. Examples of some treatments include:

  • Tumours– adenocarcinoma may be difficult to treat (although radiation therapy may be an option in some), but lymphoma in the nose may respond well to therapy with drugs (chemotherapy) and/or radiation therapy in some cases
  • Fungal infections– these may respond well to appropriate therapy, but in some cases anti fungal drugs need to be combined with surgery to remove infected tissues
  • Inflammatory polyps– these will often respond well to surgical removal, although – some cases may be relatively easy to resolve whereas in others more complex surgery may be needed
  • Foreign bodies– these can usually be removed under anaesthesia, although in some cases surgical access to the nasal cavity may be required
  • Idiopathic/post-viral rhinitis– these cases can be more difficult to manage and realistically controlling rather than curing the disease is the primary goal. Treatment options that may be considered include:
    • Intermittent antibiotic use – the disease is often associated with secondary bacterial infection and antibiotics usually improve clinical signs. However, signs often do not resolve completely with antibiotics and/or recur again after a period of time
    • Nebulisation therapy can help – nebulisers can be obtained from your vet or a pharmacist and produce a cloud of very fine water droplets. These are breathed in and help to moisten the airways in the nose – this is helpful in chronic rhinitis as nasal secretions can be very thick, so nebulisation will improve this and make sneezing more productive
    • Proprietary human nasal decongestant drops should be avoided – these can be toxic to cats and/or cause more severe disease
    • Some cats may benefit from having their nasal passages gently flushed and cleaned under anaesthetic from time to time
    • In some cases, the use of topical (nose drops) or systemic (tablets or injectable) corticosteroids may be of benefit – these drugs help to relieve inflammation and in some cases of idiopathic rhinitis (e.g., where there is inflammation termed ‘lymphoplasmacytic’ – a type of inflammation that may suggest an overactive immune repsonse) their use may be valuable
    • Good nursing care is also extremely important, keeping the cat’s face clean and clear of discharges, and encouraging it to eat by providing warmed up food that is strong smelling

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How do you treat chronic upper respiratory infection in cats? ›

Feline Upper Respiratory Infection Treatment
  1. Give it a comfortable, private place to rest.
  2. Encourage it to eat. ...
  3. Gently clean any discharge from its eyes and nose.
  4. If breathing is a problem, your vet may suggest putting your cat in a bathroom with a steamy shower running.
22 Aug 2022

Why do I get upper respiratory infections all the time? ›

You may get repeated infections because of things in your environment and lifestyle like: Contact with other infected people (especially those who are coughing or sneezing) Pollen and other irritants. Smoking and secondhand smoke.

What are the diseases of the upper respiratory tract? ›

Acute upper respiratory tract infections include rhinitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and laryngitis. Symptoms of URTIs commonly include: Cough. Sore throat.

What are 4 types of respiratory infections? ›

Four of the most common types of respiratory infections are COVID-19, the flu, pneumococcal disease, and colds.

Can cats get over upper respiratory infections on their own? ›

Most upper respiratory infections in cats will resolve themselves with a little extra TLC and time. However, more severe infections may require treatment, prescription pet medication or even hospitalization. As a rule of thumb, a sniffly kitty that is still eating, active and feeling fine can be watched for a few days.

Can a cat survive an upper respiratory infection? ›

URI is similar to the common cold in humans. It is especially common in cats that have been exposed to a lot of other cats, such as in an animal shelter. URI is rarely fatal and usually resolves in one to three weeks. Treatment generally consists of supportive care.

What's the best medicine for upper respiratory infection? ›

The recommended first-line treatment is a 10-day course of penicillin. Erythromycin can be used in patients who are allergic to penicillin. Amoxicillin, azithromycin (Zithromax), and first-generation cephalosporins are appropriate alternatives.

What are the signs of chronic infection? ›

However, some of the most common general signs and symptoms of infection include:
  • fever.
  • chills and sweats.
  • swollen lymph nodes.
  • new or sudden worsening of pain.
  • unexplained exhaustion.
  • headache.
  • skin flushing, swelling, or soreness.
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as: nausea. vomiting. diarrhea. abdominal or rectal pain.
29 Aug 2020

How do you prevent recurrent upper respiratory infections? ›

  1. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. ...
  2. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. ...
  3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. ...
  4. Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  5. Stay home if you are sick. ...
  6. Vaccines are recommended.
1 Sept 2018

What is another name for upper respiratory infection? ›

Upper Respiratory Infection (URI or Common Cold)

What are the three signs of a respiratory infection? ›

a cough – you may bring up mucus (phlegm) sneezing. a stuffy or runny nose. a sore throat.

How long can an upper respiratory infection last? ›

You can expect the symptoms of your cold or upper respiratory infection to last 14 to 21 days. A dry hacking cough may continue up to three or four weeks. To help you recover: Drink more fluids.

What are the 5 diseases of the respiratory system? ›

Respiratory diseases include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, pneumonia, and lung cancer.

What bacteria causes upper respiratory infection? ›

The most common bacterial agents responsible for acute sinusitis are Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis. Other organisms including Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, gram-negative organisms and anaerobes have also been recovered.

How do you get rid of upper respiratory infection? ›

Most of the time, viruses cause upper respiratory infections. Viruses don't respond to antibiotics. You can most likely treat the symptoms at home through pain relievers, rest and drinking fluids. If you have a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, you'll take antibiotics.

What do vets give cats for upper respiratory infection? ›

Treating Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats. Thankfully, many times URI cases have generally mild signs that will resolve on their own over time (much like if you caught the common cold). However, if your cat has colored eye or nasal discharge, your vet may prescribe antibiotics, either orally or in a topical eye.

What medicine can I give my cat for upper respiratory infection? ›

Doxycycline is an inexpensive and effective antibiotic for treating feline URI-- but wait there's more!

What medicine can I give my cat for respiratory infection? ›

Common anti-bacterial medications for cats include: Enrofloxacin (Baytril) - respiratory, skin, and urinary tract infections. Amoxicillin/Clavulanic acid (Clavamox) - wounds, respiratory infections, skin infections.

How do indoor cats get upper respiratory infection? ›

Susceptible cats can get an infection by direct contact with another infected cat or by environmental exposure to objects that have been contaminated with infectious secretions, such as food and water bowls, litter boxes, toys, and bedding.

Can I use a nebulizer on my cat? ›

In other cases, your veterinarian may recommend the use of a nebulizer to deliver aerosolized medications to your cat's lungs. Water and medication are added in specified quantities to a machine that is used to deliver the vaporized medication to your cat for breathing.

How long does it take for lysine to work in cats? ›

Kass, DVM, PHD state their study finds, “Fewer cats and eyes were affected by conjunctivitis. The onset of clinical signs of infection was delayed on average by 7 days in cats receiving L-lysine.

How do they test for an upper respiratory infection? ›

Tests that may be used to diagnose URIs are: Throat swab: Rapid antigen detection can be used to diagnose group A beta-hemolytic strep quickly. Lateral neck X-rays: This test may be ordered to rule out epiglottitis if you have difficulty breathing. Chest X-ray: Your doctor may order this test if they suspect pneumonia.

How do I know my lungs are infected? ›

Fever, sweating and shaking chills. Shortness of breath. Rapid, shallow breathing. Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough.

Is chronic infection curable? ›

A chronic infection is one that can eventually be eradicated. However, latent and slow infections are usually lifelong ailments that will need to be carefully managed through the use of an appropriate treatment plan, prescribed by Dr. Ranjan, rather than cured outright.

How is chronic infection diagnosed? ›

  1. Blood tests. A technician obtains a sample of blood by inserting a needle into a vein, usually in the arm.
  2. Urine tests. This painless test requires you to urinate into a container. ...
  3. Throat swabs. ...
  4. Stool sample. ...
  5. Spinal tap (lumbar puncture).
18 Feb 2022

What is the lower respiratory tract infection? ›

Lower respiratory tract infection (LRTI) is a broad terminology which includes acute bronchitis, pneumonia, acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/chronic bronchitis (AECB), and acute exacerbation of bronchiectasis.

What is an acute upper respiratory infection? ›

Acute upper respiratory tract infections are short-term infections of the nose and throat caused by viruses or bacteria. Viruses, such as rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza viruses, cause most acute upper respiratory infections.

What are the causes of lower respiratory tract infection? ›

The number one cause of lower respiratory tract infections are viruses that invade the respiratory tract. Bacteria are the next most common cause. In bronchitis, the most common viruses are influenza (“the flu”) and the rhinovirus (which causes the common cold).

What is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract caused by many different viruses? ›

Common viral respiratory diseases are illnesses caused by a variety of viruses that have similar traits and affect the upper respiratory tract. The viruses involved may be the influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza viruses, or respiratory adenoviruses.


1. Dr. Adela Taylor Explains Treatment Options for Upper Respiratory Infections
(Mayo Clinic Health System)
2. Bacterial Diseases of the Respiratory Tract
(Scientist Cindy)
3. Antibiotic use in upper respiratory tract infection management
(GRIP - The Global Respiratory Infection Partnership)
4. Respiratory Viruses: Upper Respiratory Tract
(RWJF Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases)
5. Learn about seasonal upper respiratory tract infections and allergies
6. Lung Infections: Classification, Symptoms & Treatment – Respiratory Medicine | Lecturio
(Lecturio Medical)

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