Sneezing, sniffling and congestion in a cat are all symptoms of an upper respiratory infection (URI). A feline URI is similar to a human cold in terms of symptoms and treatment. The infection usually clears up on its own, but cats with these symptoms benefit from seeing a vet for diagnosis. Occasionally, symptoms are severe enough to require hospitalization.
According to the ASPCA, between 80 and 90 percent of URIs in cats are caused by feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus. The remaining infections are caused by bacterial infections such as Chlamydia and bordatella. Once a cat has recovered from a URI it becomes a carrier, and can still infect other cats or even have recurrences.
As well as sneezing, sniffling and congestion, symptoms of feline URI include coughing, runny nose, decreased appetite, fever, drooling, depression, oral ulcers and rapid breathing. If a cat is having trouble breathing or is not drinking enough fluids, hospitalization may be required.
According to the Feline Advisory Bureau, the disease is spread by contact with an infected cat, or contact with objects such as clothes or food bowls carrying the virus. Cats living in communal environments such as shelters, catteries, feral cat colonies or even multiple-cat homes are at higher risk for contracting an URI.
Quarantining infected cats lowers the risk of the disease spreading to healthy cats. The Feline Advisory Bureau recommends disinfecting the sick cat's living area and handling healthy cats prior to handling the sick cat. The ASPCA recommends keeping healthy cats indoors and vaccinating against the viruses that cause upper respiratory disease.
According to the Humane Society, severe feline URIs can lead to fatal pneumonia if left untreated. Cats with immunosuppressant diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are at higher risk of developing severe URI symptoms. The ASCPA warns that in some cases, an untreated URI can lead to blindness.