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AAFP 2018: Managing Upper Respiratory Infections in Shelter Cats


These stress reduction techniques decrease the incidence of URIs and improve the welfare of shelter cats.

cat shelter

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are common in cats living in or recently adopted from shelters. At the 2018 annual conference of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, discussed stress reduction techniques that decrease the incidence of URIs and improve the welfare of shelter cats.

Latent feline herpesvirus 1 infection is often responsible for upper respiratory disease in cats, said Dr. Berger, vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. Because herpesvirus is activated by stress, reducing stress decreases upper respiratory disease. The same stress management techniques benefit cats that have been adopted recently, she said.

Dr. Berger discussed stress reduction in the context of the Five Freedoms, a framework for improving animal welfare. The San Francisco SPCA uses this model to help create stress-free environments for cats. Dr. Berger emphasized that the 5 elements are interconnected and equally important.

Freedom From Hunger and Thirst

Food intake reflects a cat’s stress level, so measuring food intake is a way to assess a cat’s risk of developing upper respiratory disease, Dr. Berger said. She recommended monitoring hospitalized or shelter-housed cats for anorexia and addressing low food intake early. She suggested separating food and litter boxes by at least 3 feet, decreasing disruptions such as cage cleaning (spot cleaning is less stressful than full cage cleaning), offering a buffet of food choices, and using a synthetic feline facial pheromone. She also recommended observing cats’ individual preferences; some like privacy but others appreciate attention during meals.


  • Cages, Stress, and Upper Respiratory Infection in Shelter Cats
  • Factors Influencing Outcome in Shelter Cats with Panleukopenia

Freedom From Pain, Injury, and Disease

Feline herpesvirus 1, feline calicivirus, Chlamydophila felis, Mycoplasma felis, and Bordetella bronchiseptica are common causes of feline upper respiratory disease. These primary agents also cause respiratory irritation that predisposes cats to secondary bacterial infection. Dr. Berger pointed out, however, that not all cats with URIs need antibiotics. Feline URIs are typically spread via fomites and droplets, not by aerosol transmission. Reducing housing density and increasing the distance between cats can decrease droplet transmission, which generally occurs over only short distances, she said. Shelter vaccination protocols are designed to reduce the transmission of primary pathogens. Veterinarians who treat cats and kittens adopted from shelters should make new vaccination plans with clients and administer the vaccines that make sense for cats in their new environments, she said.

Freedom From Physical Discomfort

Dr. Berger discussed the ways a shelter’s capacity for care affects the incidence of feline URIs. Space is protective, she noted; as cage size increases, euthanasia rates decrease. Overcrowding and longer shelter stays are also risk factors for disease. Leaving some cages empty increases the distance between cats, reduces overcrowding, and actually increases the adoption rate, she said.

Freedom to Express Normal Behaviors

Shelters and new cat owners can encourage normal feline behaviors by providing hiding places, toys, and scratching posts. Synthetic feline pheromone can also be used as scent enrichment.

Freedom From Fear and Distress

Fear is debilitating, Dr. Berger said. Because being moved from place to place distresses cats, the San Francisco SPCA limits the number of areas to which cats are moved within the facility. She noted that moving to a new home is also stressful for shelter cats. She recommended that veterinarians help clients identify ways to reduce their new pets’ stress levels.

Dr. Walden is a medical writer and primary care veterinarian. She received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University and completed an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University. A certified editor in the life sciences (ELS), Dr. Walden owns Walden Medical Writing, LLC, and writes and edits materials for health care professionals and the general public.

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