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Kansas State University
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Manhattan, KS 66506
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Source: Dr. Kate Stenske, 785-532-4282, kstenske@vet.k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, ebarcomb@k-state.edu

Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOUR CAT GETS A COMMON COLD? K-STATE VETERINARIAN DISCUSSES OPTIONS FOR THESE CHALLENGING CASES

MANHATTAN -- Most people know that asking a physician for antibiotics to treat the common cold won't do any good, but many of them ask anyway. According to a Kansas State University veterinarian, it's not any different when the patient is their cat.

"Cat owners will be really, really frustrated because herpesvirus symptoms keep coming back, and veterinarians can become frustrated, too," said Dr. Kate Stenske, a K-State clinical assistant professor. "A lot of times owners will say, 'Can I please have an antibiotic?' but antibiotics aren't always the answer."

Stenske said that when cats get the feline versions of the common cold -- herpesvirus and calicivirus -- supportive care is often the best medicine. This can include keeping their nose clean, steam therapy, warming their food -- it makes it smell tasty -- and adding an amino acid supplement called lysine.

Stenske said that a visit to the veterinarian can help decide if a virus is the likely culprit.

"Clinical signs from viruses often go away on their own in a week and don't require treatment," she said. "Not every cat needs antibiotics, and we're starting to see cats with antibiotic-resistant infections. But if clinical signs recur or worsen, then we may recommend further testing, such as culture, biopsy, and sometimes other tests including rhinoscopy or CT scan."

Stenske is presenting on feline respiratory conditions at the Western Veterinary Conference, Feb. 15-19, in Las Vegas.

Both the herpes and calici viruses cause common cold symptoms like runny noses and sneezing. Some differences, Stenske says, are that herpes can cause serious eye problems such as keratitis, whereas calici can produce an ulcer on the tongue. Herpesvirus can flare up after the cat has been under stress, such as enduring a houseful of visitors during the holidays.

"So minimizing stress is a great way to prevent flare ups of herpesvirus," Stenske said. "If your cat sees a veterinarian -- and it should -- it will be vaccinated against herpes and calici. Most cats with herpes are infected as kittens, and remain infected for life, but the vaccines will minimize the clinical signs during flare-ups," she said.

Some cats, especially breeds like Himalayans and Persians, are prone to secondary bacterial infections when they have herpesvirus. In this case, Stenske said, antibiotics are necessary and make them feel much better. Clear mucus is an indication that it's viral, she said, whereas green or yellow mucus suggests bacterial infection. To find out for sure, Stenske said a veterinarian can submit a culture to determine which bacteria is present and what the best antibiotic will be for treatment.

If a cat's sniffles and sneezes aren't caused by the herpes or calici viruses, Stenske said other infectious diseases could be to blame -- which is why it's important to see a veterinarian. Chlamydophila is a bacterial infection that usually affects kittens but is easy to diagnose and treat. Stenske said it causes crustiness in the eyes and a runny nose.

Cats also can have respiratory problems from a fungal organism called Cryptococcus. Stenske said it causes problems in the nasal cavity and sores around the nose. The organism can destroy skin and bone, and can move into the brain and cause neurological damage.

"This is why we like to catch it early and get them started on treatment, which can be long-term," Stenske said.

Cat owners who also share their home with a dog should be aware that the bacteria that causes kennel cough can jump from dogs to cats, Stenske said.

"Kennel cough will show up with signs of coughing, sneezing and discharge from the eye," Stenske said. "We'll vaccinate dogs for it but don't usually recommend it for cats because it is so rare."

If a cat's respiratory ailment isn't caused by an infectious disease, Stenske said there are other conditions that could cause symptoms. Tooth root abscess, trauma to the nose or even a foreign object stuck in the nose are possibilities.

"Also, some cats have allergies like human allergies," Stenske said. "They can flare up at certain times of the year, or they can be allergic to things like smoke. A lot of times we don't know specifically what the allergen is."

In more serious cases, Stenske said, respiratory ailments sometimes can be caused by cancer.

"If we suspect a fungal infection or noninfectious cause we recommend doing full diagnostics," Stenske said. "But if it looks like signs of a simple, common virus, we see if it goes away in a week or two."