How do cats get cat flu?

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Table of Contents

There are two things responsible for how cats get cat flu:  Viruses and bacteria. There are two main types of viruses and two main types of bacteria involved in the contraction of the disease. What follows is what these are and how they are responsible for cats getting cat flu. 

The Feline Calicivirus or FCV is transmitted in the following ways:

  • Via direct contact with other cats that are infected
  • This virus is airborne, hence, it can be contracted through the environment
  • Via direct contact with other cats who may not show symptoms but are otherwise carriers of the disease.
how do cats get cat flu
how do cats get cat flu

The Feline Herpesvirus or FHV is transmitted via discharge emanating from the nose and eyes as well as the saliva of a cat who is infected.  This is one of the cat flu viruses that survives in the environment and hence is easy for other cats to contract.  This is possibly the reason that it is one of the main causes of cat flu.

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What is the disease known as cat flu?

Exactly what is cat flu?  Basically, cat flu is similar to a cold and is a common ailment caused by bacterial and viral infections affecting the upper respiratory tract in cats.  While cat flu is a common illness and may not be that serious in adult cats, you should seek medical attention for your cat from your vet.   If your cat has cat flu he or she may:

  • Suffer from muscular aches and pains
  • Experience aches and pains in the joints
  • Develop a sore throat
  • Have a runny nose
  • Develop runny eyes
  • Lose their voice
  • Develop mouth ulcers
  • Develop mouth ulcers (particularly kittens)
  • Sneeze
  • Dribble
  • Be suffering from a fever
  • Lose their appetite

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Kittens and senior cats are particularly vulnerable


With cat flu, those who are at greater risk are usually young kittens and senior cats or cats with more sinister underlying conditions or those with compromised immune systems.  Cat flu can therefore be quite serious in cats falling into these categories and may even prove fatal.  However, in most instances cat flu is a highly treatable condition from which most cats can recover, similar to humans suffering from colds and flu. 

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What to watch out for  

The reality is that in spite of available vaccines, cat flu, like the common cold in humans, still persists and particularly in kittens, certain symptoms such as mouth ulcers, if left untreated, can lead to permanent eye damage.  Therefore, if your kitten’s eye seems half closed, see your vet without delay.

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The causes of cat flu

In the majority of cases, that is around 80%, two viruses are mainly responsible for your cat contracting cat flu:

  • Feline Herpesvirus (FHV)
  • Feline Calicivirus (FCV)

While your cat may have contracted both viruses, and this does happen, the issue can be further exacerbated by even more problems that result in damage to the lining of the respiratory tract leading to bacterial infections. 

Other causes of cat flu include:

  • A form of bacteria known as Chlamydophila Felis (previously referred to as Chlamydia)
  • A form of bacteria known as Bordetella Bronchiseptica which is known to cause dogs to develop kennel cough.

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What happens to the cat once he or she becomes infected?

When a cat becomes infected with cat flu it will shed virus particles through:

  • Saliva
  • Nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge

While cats who are suffering from cat flu are the ones most likely to spread the disease, healthy cats can also be carriers without appearing to be suffering from any of the associated symptoms since, while they may not show any signs of the disease they still shed virus particles that are responsible for infecting other cats.  What’s even more troublesome is that these particles have been known to survive in the environment for up to seven days which means that your cat may have contracted the illness without actually being in the presence of another cat that is infected.

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Other ways that cat flu can be transmitted from cat to cat

Other ways that your cat may contract cat flu involve coming into contact with:

  • Infected food and drinking bowls
  • Toys and bedding
  • The clothing of a person who has been touching an infected cat

The different types of cat flu viruses

Feline Herpesvirus (FHV)


Most commonly found in kittens symptoms of FHV include:

  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Discharge from the nose
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • The presence of fever
  • Ulcers that appear to develop on the eye surface
  • Ulcers that appear to develop on the tongue
  • Conjuctivitis

It is often the case that kittens may develop anorexia that can also lead to dehydration and pregnant cats who become infected are at risk of losing their litter.  The symptoms, however, are less severe in adult cats who are otherwise not compromised.

How it is treated

While this condition can be managed, once a cat has contracted the feline herpes virus it remains infected throughout its lifespan and at times the disease may resurface or flare up, similar to what happens when a person is infected with the human herpes virus.  However, the initial infection upon contracting the illness is usually more severe than any recurring infections.  Your cat is at risk of the disease recurring if he or she is immuno-suppressed or following another illness, or a particularly stressful situation.  The most effective way to treat this condition is to gently cleanse and bathe the nose and eye areas with cotton wool and warm water to remove any discharge and take the cat to the vet so that antibiotics can be administered to prevent the occurrence of secondary bacterial infections.  If conjunctivitis is also present, eye drops may be used. 

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Feline Calicivirus (FCV)


The most common symptoms of FCV include:

  • The presence of a fever
  • Appetite loss
  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Discharge from the nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mouth ulcers that appear to be quite severe
  • Drooling
  • The disease can recur if the cat is suffering from another illness or becomes stressed
  • Pneumonia can result if the condition is severe

How it is treated 

  • The cat can be vaccinated. However, vaccination only prevents certain strains of the FCV virus.  But, cats who have been vaccinated generally suffer less severe symptoms of the disease than those who do not receive any form of vaccine treatment.  Supportive treatments are also administered such as bathing the nose and eye areas, putting your cat on a soft food diet and taking the cat to the vet for a course of antibiotics to prevent any recurring infections.  Cats who contract severe forms of the illness and develop mouth ulcers may need to be placed on a drip and pain killers may also be prescribed.


When your cat contracts Chlamydophila, this results in a less severe form of cat flu. 


  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Redness of the eyes


Bordetella results in similar symptoms to Chlamydophila but, additional symptoms may include:


  • The condition can spread into the chest which can lead to a serious condition that is particularly concerning for kittens as it has a relatively high death rate.
  • Cats may develop a cough

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Treatment for forms of cat flu in general

  • The first thing to do is to consult with your vet in the prescription of a course of anribiotics which will help to prevent the cat flu from turning into pneumonia. This can happen as a result of further bacterial infections causing damage to the nose and air passages. 
  • Since the presence of mouth ulcers or a blocked nose may cause your cat to stop eating and drinking your cat could dehydrate. Once again, kittens are hugely at risk in this case.  A loss of sense of smell or a sore throat may mean that you should give your cat soft foods that are strong smelling and tasting to encourage your cat to eat.  Foods such as strong-smelling fish like sardines and pilchards can be tried as well as cooked chicken, preferably roasted.  There are also a number of foods available from your vet that are prescribed for ailing cats.  It may also help to mix the food with water and if your cat still will not eat hospitalisation may be necessary.
  • It is also important to make sure that your cat is drinking since administering a high quantity of fluids goes a long way in helping to reduce catarrhal secretions. Steam is also good for releasing these secretions hence a good idea is to let your cat into the bathroom once you have had a shower or a bath to allow the cat to be exposed to the steam.

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Is there any way that cat flu can be prevented?

Since there are many different forms or strains of the cat flu virus vaccination in itself is not completely effective against each and every one of these strains.  When your cat first contracts cat flu two initial doses of the vaccine will be required.  These will be supplemented by regular vaccine boosters.  It is also important to bear in mind that even if a cat has been vaccinated and doesn’t show any signs or symptoms of cat flu that he or she may still be a carrier of the disease.  If a mother cat has been vaccinated, her kittens will inherit some of the immunity to a certain degree but this diminishes as they get older and they may then become vulnerable to the disease.  It also stands to reason that if a mother cat is infected and doesn’t show any signs of cat flu, she can still pass it on to her kittens.  The kittens will then either inherit the disease or become carriers of the disease themselves without exhibiting the symptoms.  Should your cat already have cat flu when you take him or her to be vaccinated, this will not prevent the disease from occurring. 

Can cat flu be passed on to humans?

There is no evidence to suggest that humans can contract cat flu.

When taking your cat to the vet

If you suspect that your cat has contracted one of the forms of cat flu it is important to mention this to your vet before you take your cat to the vet for treatment.  This is to ensure that you do not put other cats at risk.  Your vet may ask you to either wait in your car instead of the waiting room to see the vet. 

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When going away on holiday

If you are going away on holiday and are considering boarding your cat at a cattery it is also important to have your cat’s vaccination certificates available to reassure the cattery staff that your cat has been protected from cat flu as far as possible and does not pose a dangerous risk to other cats in the cattery.

What are the risks of me adopting a cat if it is had cat flu?

From what we have learnt in this article it is clear to see that cat flu is a common disease amongst our feline furry friends which means that a high proportion of cats are either at risk of being carriers or have in fact contracted the disease.  While there is no cure as such and cat flu does indeed recur, if one is prepared to nurture the cat with the right treatment and provide a comfortable loving home, then there is no reason why any cat who has had cat flu cannot live a happy and healthy life. 

What about other cats in the house?

If you have a cat that has contracted cat flu and you have multiple cats in your house, while it may be the case the your other cats may have already been exposed to the illness, if possible, try to isolate the ailing cat from the others in a room of its own while it heals. 

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How long does cat flu last?

While we have already learnt that once a cat contracts cat flu there is no known cure for the disease itself and that the disease can be managed with antibiotics and other forms of treatment actual bouts of when the disease flares up and symptoms of the disease can last up to approximately 5 to 10 days in normal cases but can last up to six weeks if the case is severe.  Antibiotics do aid the speed of recovery and especially with kittens, they need to be administered for at least 3 to 4 weeks and can be costly.  Once again, it is vitally important to reiterate that kittens are the most at risk and if treatment is not sought in time they can rapidly deteriorate and the disease can prove fatal.

Hazel Buckley
Hazel Buckley

About Hazel Buckley
Hazel is an animal enthusiast and educator who grew up on a farm which her parents owned in Ingogo, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  The farm was situated right under the Majuba Mountains - the site where the Anglo-Boer War was fought. 

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information published on this website is accurate, the author and owners of this website take no responsibility  for any loss or damage suffered as a result of relience upon the information contained therein.  Furthermore the bulk of the information is derived from information in 2018 and use therefore is at your on risk. In addition you should consult professional advice if required.