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Ask a Vet: How should I treat my cat's chronic upper respiratory infection?

March 22, 2010 |  8:04 pm

Have a non-emergency question about your pet's health? Dr. Heather Oxford of L.A. veterinary hospital California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE) is here to help! In this installment of Ask a Vet, Dr. Oxford offers some advice to reader Jay van Dam about treating a cat's upper respiratory infection:

Cat Jay's question: I have a 1-year-old male cat with a chronic upper respiratory infection. Got him as a kitten and [have] been treating him ever since. Usually he is asymptomatic but will get a runny nose or eyes maybe once or twice a month. His lungs [are] always clear. Told by vet to give him gentamicin sulfate eye drops in his nose and terrimycin ointment for his eyes when he is symptomatic; otherwise, leave alone to spare his liver and kidneys. Also I keep Amoxi-drops in case he seems ill. These seem to work well. Also, [I've been] told not to get him fixed or his shots. He is a totally inside cat, active and sweet. ... Is there any other treatment that you could suggest? Or am I doing all that's necessary? He also gets L-Lysene in his daily diet.

Heather Oxford, DVM: Your kitty likely has feline herpes virus, otherwise known as rhinotracheitis virus, but don't worry -- you can't get it from him. The real concern is how contagious he is to other cats during his flare-ups, and how unlikely it is that a non-neutered male cat will be content staying indoors forever. Almost every indoor cat escapes at some point throughout their lives, no matter how hard we try to keep them in, and this is the main reason why I still recommend vaccinating with the FVRCP and rabies vaccines and neutering indoor cats.

Outdoor cat populations and shelter populations have an incidence of herpes virus shedding that varies from 20% to 95%. This is because infected cats shed or become contagious when they are under stressful conditions. This is probably why your veterinarian has recommended not putting him through the stress of neutering or vaccinating.

I would encourage you to reconsider vaccinating because the vaccine helps decrease the severity of disease even in infected cats, as well as decrease the severity of disease from calicivirus and panleukopenia.

I agree completely with the medicinal choices, and have had excellent success managing cats like yours this way. Make sure you are giving at least 250mg of lysine twice daily when he is asymptomatic, and 500mg of lysine twice daily when he is having a flare-up. Two forms of lysine that I have found convenient are the 500mg capsules that can be split open on the food, and a paste formula available at your veterinarian’s office.

If you would like to know exactly what your cat has, there is a test that detects all five of the most common causative viruses and bacteria. If bacteria is detected that is not sensitive to Amoxi-drops, an appropriate antibiotic can be selected. Otherwise, lysine is an antiviral amino acid that is useful in preventing flare-ups, and there are prescription antivirals that are effective against severe eye infections. There is no right or wrong way to manage long-term feline upper respiratory infections, and a discussion with your veterinarian regarding these considerations will help you decide the best course of action to take.

To submit your question for Dr. Oxford, just leave a comment on this post or send us a tweet @LATunleashed and look for her answer in an upcoming installment of Ask a Vet!

About our vet: Dr. Oxford received her bachelor of science degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.  She also received a master's of public health in epidemiology from Emory University and went on to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She then went to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, where she received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree.  She practices at California Animal Rehabilitation and is also certified in veterinary rehabilitation and acupuncture. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Wade, and German shepherd, Tess.

Photo: A veterinarian examines a cat. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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