Cat Flu Home Care | 10 Ways to Support a Cat's Recovery
If your cat is sneezing, with a snotty nose and watery eyes, and has been diagnosed with cat flu (an upper respiratory tract infection), your vet may have prescribed medications for you to administer. However, as well as receiving veterinary treatment, their recovery also depends on diligent home nursing care. Like humans, cats can feel miserable when they have flu and need someone to look after them to ensure they're kept comfortable and well-nourished while they fight their infection.
In this article, we will explore recommendations for providing the best cat flu home care so you can support your cat's recovery and well-being, including:
- How to keep your cat warm and clean
- How to ensure your cat is well-nourished and hydrated
- Nebulization techniques to help clear nasal discharge
- Reducing stress and why it's important
- Over-the-counter medications and supplements
Cat Flu Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
The main causes of cat flu are two viruses: feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus. The bacterial causes of cat flu include bordetella, chlamydia, and mycoplasma.
An upper respiratory tract infection affects a cat's nose, eyes, and throat. Kittens and senior cats are often more severely affected by flu than healthy adult cats. Potential symptoms include:
- Conjunctivitis (also known as 'pink eye')
- Squinting of one or both eyes
- Discharge from the nose and eyes
- A reduced or complete loss of appetite
- Voice changes
- Difficulty swallowing
- Retching and gagging
Veterinary treatment for cat flu is mainly supportive, will depend on the severity of symptoms, and may include the following:
- Antivirals if a viral infection is suspected
- Antibiotics if a bacterial infection is suspected
- Eye lubrication
- Nasal drops
- Appetite stimulants
- Fluids (given under the skin or directly into a vein)
- Feeding tube
Cat flu is highly contagious and sick cats should ideally be isolated until they have recovered. For further information about feline upper respiratory tract infections, including causes, symptoms, diagnosis, transmission, prevention, veterinary treatment, prognosis, and other conditions that can present similarly, read the Complete Cat Flu Guide.
Caring for Cats With Flu
Let's explore 10 home care advice tips to help treat your cat's flu, support their recovery, and help them feel better.
1. Provide A Warm, Comfortable Place to Rest
Make sure your cat has a cozy, soft cat bed to rest in while they recover. In colder climates, keep them warm by using a heated bed or by placing their bed near a radiator. Soft blankets can also be used to provide extra comfort.
Their sleeping area should be in a calm and quiet part of the home, away from drafts, where they can easily access their resources, such as litter boxes and food.
2. Keep Your Cat's Nose and Eyes Clean
Cats love to be clean, so having discharge around their eyes and nose can be distressing. If crusted nasal and ocular discharge is not removed in can also cause irritation and damage to the underlying skin.
Wipe their nose and around their eyes at least 2-3 times daily. We recommend WaterWipes are safe and gentle, with a soft texture that grips and removes crust.
A clean nose also encourages your cat to eat because they are able to smell their food. Therefore, take care to ensure their nose is always clear of discharge before offering them a meal.
3. Nebulization Therapy
Since congested cats can't blow their nose, the fine mist from a nebulizer helps loosen dried-up secretions, making them easier to expel when they sneeze. They can be nebulized 2-3 times daily, each session lasting 10-15 minutes.
A portable ultrasonic nebulizer is recommended as they are small, affordable, and often quiet, such as the Naweti Nebulizer. Fill the nebulizer cup with sterile saline (0.9% sodium chloride), and when it's turned on, it will convert the solution into a humidifying vapor.
Nebulizers for human use usually come with a mouthpiece and mask. It is recommended to use the mouthpiece and hold it a few centimeters in front of your cat's nose and let them breathe in the vapor.
If your cat doesn't sit still while you hold the nebulizer in front of their nose, you can easily create a nebulization chamber at home:
- To serve as the chamber, use a cat carrier, a large plastic box (without the lid), or a cat tent bed.
- A soft blanket and their favorite cat treats should be placed inside to keep them comfortable.
- Fill the nebulizer cup with sterile saline.
- Place your cat inside the improvised chamber.
- Turn the nebulizer on to produce a fine mist (either batteries or a cord powers the portable nebulizers).
- Place the nebulizer inside the chamber, directed approximately towards the center (if it is too large to fit in the carrier or tent, place it at the entrance and direct it inside).
- To contain the mist, cover the entire carrier (the side openings and front), the top of the plastic box, or the front of the tent with a light blanket or towel.
- Nebulize your cat for approximately 10-15 minutes; constant supervision is necessary.
- Many cats enjoy being nebulized, especially if the nebulizer is quiet, as it helps them to breathe more easily; however, if they become stressed, you will have to stop.
- If the nebulization chamber is getting too warm, place an ice pack under their blanket.
An alternative to nebulization is steam therapy 1-2 times per day. While you are getting a hot shower, keep the door shut and your cat in the bathroom so they can breathe in the steam for approximately 10-15 minutes (don't put them in the shower or get them wet). Sterile saline (0.9% sodium chloride), with no additives, can also be dropped directly into their nose (from the vial or using a plastic dropper bottle) to help moisten and clear secretions.
It's recommended to offer food after a nebulization or steam therapy session, once their nasal congestion and sense of smell have improved.
4. Provide Nutritional Support
A cat with an upper respiratory tract infection often has a lack of appetite. Not only because they feel crummy, but if they have a blocked nose, their sense of smell is reduced, and if they can't smell their food, they are less likely to eat. Nutrition is important for optimal health, and ensuring your cat keeps eating is an essential part of their cat flu care.
- Wipe their nose before feeding time with gentle wipes, such as WaterWipes.
- Warm their wet food to release the aromas by heating it in the microwave for a few seconds, mixing it well, and then carefully touching it to ensure it's not too hot before serving.
- Offer smelly flavors of cat food, such as fish or chicken.
- Offer them boiled chicken or canned tuna in spring water (never brine or oil). However, this is only a short-term solution as these foods don't provide a nutritionally balanced diet.
- Raise their food bowl slightly so they don't have to keep putting their head down, which can be uncomfortable when they're full of snot.
- Hand-feed them, which involves letting them lick the food off your fingers.
- Place a small amount of food on their paw or nose so they will lick it off and hopefully stimulate their appetite. However, some cats will be unhappy about this technique, so don't continue if they find it stressful.
- If they start eating small amounts, offer food little and often to keep their strength up.
- In more severe cases of flu, cats may need to be hospitalized so a vet can place a feeding tube.
- It's not advisable to create a buffet and offer a large selection of foods simultaneously, as they will likely find it overwhelming. Instead, offer one food at a time, then remove it after 30-60 minutes if they don't show any interest.
- Do not force feed them with a syringe as it can be stressful, create an aversion to the food, and a negative association with you. Additionally, it is challenging to syringe feed a sufficient amount, and there is also a risk of them inhaling food and developing aspiration pneumonia.
5. Keep Your Cat Hydrated
Ensuring your cat is drinking and remains hydrated is vital for a smooth recovery. To help maintain adequate water intake:
- Keep a water bowl next to their resting spot, so it's easy for them to access.
- Change the water twice daily, so it's always fresh.
- Ideally, run their water through a filter, for example, the Amazon Basics Water Filter Pitcher, to improve the taste.
- Flavored water is often more appealing and can be made by adding water to a can of tuna (in spring water, never brine or oil) and squeezing all the water out of the tuna into a bowl.
- Add warm water to their canned food to increase their water consumption. The warmth also helps release the aromas from the food to encourage eating.
- Similar to humans eating chicken soup when they feel unwell, cat soups, such as Friskies Lil' Soups or Fancy Feast Broths, can also be provided.
- For cats who are moderately to severely dehydrated, your veterinarian may need to administer subcutaneous fluids (under the skin) or hospitalize them for intravenous fluids (directly into their vein via a cannula).
For more ideas on how to keep your cat hydrated, read 20 Tips to Encourage a Cat to Drink More Water.
6. Reduce Stress to Promote Health
Since stress negatively impacts the immune system, stress management is also important for cat flu recovery. Try to reduce potential stressors, such as improper handling, loud music, being told off, strong-smelling chemicals, and too many visitors. If another cat in the household bullies them, keep them separate.
In addition, make sure they have plenty of resources that help them relieve stress, such as hiding places, scratchers, and toys.
Feliway Optimum Plugins are diffusers that release calming pheromones and can also be used in the room where they spend most of their time.
Another calming method is to play soothing music. For example, David Teie has composed cat-specific music, which incorporates feline sounds and has been shown to have relaxing effects.
7. Daily Grooming Sessions
Sick cats often don't feel like grooming, and since cats love to be clean, this can make them even more miserable. Once a day, gently brush your cat to help them feel better. If they are a bit grubby, you can wipe them down with WaterWipes.
8. Lubricating Eye Drops for Cats
A study found that feline herpesvirus, one of the main viruses responsible for cat flu, reduces the quality of the tear film (the thin layer on the eye's surface that provides protection and hydration), leading to irritation.1 Therefore, applying lubricating eye drops containing hyaluronic acid (also known as hyaluron or hyaluronate) every 4-6 hours helps soothe the eyes and stabilize the tear film, improving eye comfort and health.
If your cat has been prescribed medicated eye drops, always check with your veterinarian first. You need to wait at least 10 minutes before applying lubrication so as not to wash the medicated drops straight out of the eye.
9. Fortiflora Probiotic Cat Supplement
Fortiflora, a probiotic (healthy bacteria), was shown in a study to reduce the severity of symptoms in cats with upper respiratory tract infections due to feline herpesvirus.2 The theory is that it enhances their immune system, helping them to clear the virus.
Fortiflora also has an irresistible meaty flavor, so sprinkling it on their food can encourage them to eat if their appetite is reduced. If they are on oral antibiotics, it may also help to maintain normal intestinal bacteria.
10. L-Lysine Cat Flu Supplement
Lysine has been shown to inhibit the replication of feline herpesvirus. In one study, cats receiving lysine had less severe conjunctivitis caused by herpesvirus than those on a placebo.3 Another study looked at cats with lifelong herpesvirus infections (many cats infected with herpesvirus never clear the virus and will show signs of cat flu when the virus is reactivated by stress). When given lysine, they had reduced viral shedding (release of virus from their body) following a stressful event.4
Many owners and fosterers find lysine helpful for adult cats and kittens with upper respiratory tract infections. It's considered safe, and it can be tried as long as your cat does not find you administering it stressful. Adult cats receive 500 mg (per cat) twice daily, and kittens receive 250 mg (per kitten) twice daily.
Cat Flu Recovery Time
Most cats recover from flu within 7-10 days with appropriate treatment and supportive care. However, more severe cases may take up to 14 days.
Always contact your vet if your cat is worsening or not improving as expected. It's also advisable to weigh your cat once a day with accurate scales, such as the Beurer Digital Pet Scales, and notify your vet if they are losing weight.
Summary: Home Care for Cat Flu
- If your cat is sick, always take them to your vet and administer prescribed medications per the label.
- Clean around your cat's eyes with gentle wipes, such as WaterWipes, and apply lubricating eye drops, such as OptixCare.
- Keep their nose clean with gentle wipes, such as WaterWipes, and use a nebulizer, such as the Naweti Nebulizer, to help clear nasal secretions.
- Ensure they keep eating and drinking, for example, by providing cat soups, such as Friskies Lil' Soups or Fancy Feast Broth.
- Make sure your cat has a warm, cozy place to rest where they can easily access their food, water, and litter box.
- Minimize potential stressors and create a calming environment by providing hiding places, toys, and scratchers, using feline pheromones, such as Feliway Optimum, and playing relaxing music.
- Brush your cat daily and clean them with wipes if they are dirty.
- Provide the supplements L-lysine and Fortiflora to help speed up your cat's recovery.
- Most cats should recover within 7-10 days. If they are not recovering as expected, always consult your vet.
- Lim, C.C. et al. (2009) ‘Effects of feline herpesvirus type 1 on tear film break-up time, Schirmer tear test results, and conjunctival goblet cell density in experimentally infected cats’, American Journal of Veterinary Research, 70(3), pp. 394–403.
- Lappin, M.R. et al. (2009) ‘Pilot study to evaluate the effect of oral supplementation of enterococcus faecium SF68 on cats with latent feline herpesvirus 1’, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11(8), pp. 650–654.
- Stiles, J. et al. (2002) ‘Effect of oral administration of L-lysine on conjunctivitis caused by feline herpesvirus in cats’, American Journal of Veterinary Research, 63(1), pp. 99–103.
- Maggs, D.J., Nasisse, M.P. and Kass, P.H. (2003) ‘Efficacy of oral supplementation with L-lysine in cats latently infected with feline herpesvirus’, American Journal of Veterinary Research, 64(1), pp. 37–42.