Technically no, they don’t catch colds like humans do. Colds (in humans) are caused by the rhinovirus and are host specific. Cats do catch upper respiratory infections though (also known as cat flu), which have similar symptoms to colds that we get.
The two main viruses which are responsible for 80% of upper respiratory infections in cats are “feline herpes” and “calicivirus”. Other pathogens include chlamydia, bordetella, and mycoplasma.
Unlike colds in humans, which are mostly self-limiting, cats can become very sick, very quickly. Kittens and senior cats are especially at risk. Healthy adult cats do get sick but tend to bounce back within a week or two.
Once your cat has been infected with the feline herpes virus, he will have it for life and may at some stages “reactivate” and cause symptoms. It is also possible for both viral infections to be shed by the cat, who displays no symptoms of infection, but is able to pass on the infection to other cats.
Direct contact such as nasal discharges. When the cat sneezes, airborne particles fly into the air and are inhaled by other cats. Eye discharge and saliva are also highly contagious.
Indirect contact (fomites). Viruses are able to remain contagious in the environment as long as it stays moist, which thankfully isn’t too long. Bedding, food and water bowls, toys, litter trays can all harbour infectious viruses.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for colds in cats. Supportive care is provided until the cat can fight off the infection itself. This may include:
Fluids to treat dehydration.
Removing discharge from the nose and eyes. Nasal discharge, in particular, can affect your cat’s sense of smell, which is vital for the appetite. Helping to remove discharge goes a long way in maintaining the appetite.
In some cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed.
Some cats will develop a secondary bacterial infection, in which case antibiotics will be prescribed.
Saline nose drops may be used to help treat stuffy noses. Place one drop in each nostril once a day.
Encouraging your cat to eat is vital. He needs all his strength to fight the virus. If he’s gone off his food, try offering him something extra strong smelling such as tuna or baby food (make sure it contains no onion or garlic). Try heating it up a little in the microwave.
L-Lysine is an essential amino acid which has been shown to suppress viral replication and inhibit cytopathogenicity. However, you should always speak to your veterinarian before you supplement your cat’s diet.