Q: We want to adopt a kitten for our children as a Christmas present. The shelter we visited has plenty of kittens, but several have runny noses. Are these kittens OK to adopt?
A: To answer your question, let me (Perry Jameson) first explain from what these kittens are probably suffering. Since multiple kittens have the same problem, it is most likely they all have an upper respiratory infection (URI). Cats can develop infections that are similar to the “colds” we get this time of the year.
These upper respiratory infections are, unfortunately, just as common in cats as they are in humans. Getting infected is easy as the organisms are highly contagious and present wherever there are groups of cats. The causes for the infections in cats and people are different. So a sick cat cannot infect us, and when you have a cold, you cannot infect your cat.
The most common cause for these infections in cats are two viruses, feline herpes virus (also called rhinotracheitis virus) and feline calicivirus. The viruses are shed in the cats’ nasal secretions. Spread of the virus occurs when they socialize with each other, by humans who carry the virus from an infected to uninfected cat, or the sharing of food/water bowls and toys.
The herpes virus is pretty fragile and can only live in the environment for about 18 hours. The calcivirus is tougher and can survive up to 30 days outside of a cat. Cleaning contaminated surfaces with bleach will destroy both viruses.
To a lesser extent, bacteria may cause some feline upper respiratory tract infections as well. However, most of the time the bacterial infection occurs as a result of the damage the virus caused first.
The symptoms of a feline URI are similar to those you and I have when we develop a cold. There is usually a 7-10 day course of a clear nasal discharge and sneezing that resolves without any therapy.
As for us, some cats can develop more serious problems, and this is where your veterinarian can help. Some cats will develop drainage from the eyes. In rare instances, serious corneal ulcers may form.
Oral ulcers can be a side effect and, if severe enough, impair their ability to eat and drink. Not all cats will develop fevers, but if they do, they may also not feel like eating. Cats will not eat if they cannot smell, so severe nasal congestion will result in anorexia. Cats are obligate nasal breathers, meaning they do not like to breathe through their mouths. If mucous and swelling close off their nostrils, they will open-mouth breath and usually stop eating. In rare instances cats, like humans, can also develop pneumonia as a secondary event from the URI.
When cats develop the symptoms I just mentioned, they will need help to get through the event. The combination of not drinking normally, as well as the increased loss of fluid from nasal secretions, can cause dehydration. Treatment for these more severely infected cats may include subcutaneous or intravenous fluids and feeding tubes to provide nutrition until they want to eat again. In severely obstructed cats, we may elect to anesthetize them and flush out the nasal passages and sinuses.
Antibiotics may or may not be needed. If purely a viral infection, antibiotics will not help at all. I have seen many kittens placed on antibiotics for a viral URI who then develop chronic diarrhea. The antibiotics inadvertently killed their “good” intestinal bacteria that were just getting established. If there is a bacterial infection, then antibiotics can be a life saver. Antibiotics are usually given when the nasal discharge is yellow or green and there is a persistent fever.
There are some cats with just a viral infection that cannot get rid of the symptoms. This is more likely in kittens that do not have a fully developed immune system. In these cats, an antiviral medication may be given to decrease and shorten the duration of symptoms.
The frustrating thing about these viruses is that in most cats, they never go away as they remain chronically and asymptomatically infected. This can have impacts in two ways. First, they may develop symptoms again during their life, especially following a stressful event, such as surgery, boarding, or introduction of another pet. Second, even if asymptomatic, they will periodically shed virus infecting other cats.
As with most diseases, preventing infection is better than treating an infection. There are vaccinations available but, as for the flu vaccine in humans, they do not usually completely eliminated the possibility of infection but instead minimize severity of symptoms.
These little kittens you described need homes, so I do not want to say to not adopt them as the odds are good that if they are healthy otherwise, they will be fine. You just need to be aware of the potential complications and what to watch for.