When we adopted our cat, Dexter, he was typical of pretty much every other stray kitten in the world. He was cute (of course), and playful, but he was also snotty and sneezy, and unfortunately already had some permanent damage to his eyes, leaving them cloudy and his vision less than stellar.
The vast majority of kittens that I see in my office are congested to some degree. Some are sicker than others, with fevers and poor appetites, and some, like Dexter, also have some degree of damage to their corneas. Since most of the kittens that come through our doors are found stray or from a rescue or shelter, they have had somewhat stressful childhoods. They are likely coming from crowded conditions with a lot of other young equally stressed out kittens.
The underlying causes of these upper respiratory infections in cats are typically viral or bacterial (specifically Chlamydia, which, by the way, is not related to the human variety). These are highly contagious illnesses that almost every cat has been exposed to at some point in their lifetime, usually during kittenhood. Luckily, most cats develop some natural immunity against these illnesses over time, and better yet, our routine vaccines give them an even higher level of protection against these contagious diseases. The most common viral illness that cats are exposed to is feline herpes virus, which causes all of the respiratory congestion as well as eye ulcers and conjunctivitis. And, like all herpes viruses, once infected, it remains for life waiting for a period of stress to cause symptoms again, although most cats will be symptom free after they recover from their initial infection. Treatment for feline herpes virus mainly involves a little TLC and in more chronic cases, supplementation with the amino acid, lysine.
Back to my cat Dexter. He actually had a chlamydial infection – not feline herpes virus. I know this because I cultured his nasal secretions (a fancy way of saying snot!), in order to determine the exact underlying cause. In the case of Chlamydia upper respiratory infections, a month long course of a specific antibiotic is needed to eradicate the symptoms. Dexter was a new man after his course of treatment, but unfortunately the damage to his eyes is permanent. But don’t worry – he can swipe a moth out of midair and he is still the best stinkbug hunter of my three cats!