Feline Bordetella – Kennel Cough in Cats Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis And Treatments

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Definition of Kennel Cough in Cats

Kennel Cough in Cats, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis, feline respiratory disease complex, and “bordetella”, is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes mild to severe respiratory symptoms in cats.

While Kennel Cough is rare in cats, it does appear, and usually strikes cats living in crowded and/or unsanitary conditions. Kennel Cough is highly infectious because the bacterium that causes this disease, Bordetella bronchiseptica, is a small organism that is easily spread through airborne particles and targets the upper respiratory tract of cats, dogs, rabbits, pigs and sometimes people.

Affected cats can develop respiratory distress all of a sudden, or their breathing difficulties can come on gradually. Kennel Cough can be transmitted to people from their infected pets, and the disease is especially dangerous for infants and others with compromised immune systems.

Causes of Kennel Cough (Bordetalla) in Cats

Causes of Kennel Cough in Cats

The bacterium that causes bordetellosis in cats, Bordetella bronchiseptica, is the same one that is responsible for causing kennel cough in dogs. Bordetellosis is extremely contagious between cats, and also by and between cats, dogs, rabbits, pigs and even people.

Infected animals transmit this infection to non-infected animals through aerosolized microdroplets that contain the bacteria, and also by direct physical contact with infected bodily fluids.

Bordetella bronchiseptica organisms are shed in nasal, oral and other bodily secretions of infected animals for 3 or more months after they become infected and contract the disease, whether or not they ever get sick from the infection.

Barking, hissing, spitting, coughing, panting and meowing are all common behaviors that can release the infectious secretions into the air through the cat’s nose and/or mouth. Bordetellosis tends to plague environments that have house multiple cats kept in close quarters, especially if the cat population changes frequently.

Crowding, inadequate ventilation, poor hygiene and chronic stress increase the chance of cats developing this disease. Catteries (which are cat breeding facilities), pet stores, boarding kennels, backyard breeders and animal shelters are the primary sites where bordetellosis is seen in companion cats.

Young kittens and unvaccinated cats that live outdoors also have a greatly increased risk of developing severe clinical disease from infections with Bordetella bronchiseptica.

Preventing Kennel Cough in Cats

Given how extremely contagiousness infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica is, the best way to prevent actual clinical disease is to prevent infected animals from coming into contact with non-infected animals.

New cats should be separated from existing household pets for at least several weeks to reduce the chance of cross-infection. Impeccable hygiene, a high-quality nutritious diet and responsible environmental care are important to the welfare of any companion cat, but are especially important to prevent the spread of contagious diseases such as bordatellosis.

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Facilities that house lots of cats in close quarters can reduce the risk of feline bordetellosis by maintaining a consistently clean and well-disinfected environment for all feline residents, with lots of fresh air and good ventilation.

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There are vaccines for both feline and canine bordetellosis, although the effectiveness of these vaccines are somewhat questionable at this time. Most domestic cats are not routinely vaccinated against bordetellosis, but the vaccine can be useful in high-risk, multi-cat situations.

Most boarding kennels and grooming facilities require dogs to be current on their bordetellosis vaccination. Owners who have both cats and dogs may want to vaccinate their pets against Bordetella bronchiseptica regularly, not only to prevent their cat from becoming infected, but also to prevent the cat from infecting dogs in the household, and vice versa.

Symptoms of Kennel Cough (Bordetella) in Cats

Effects of Feline Bordetellosis – From the Cat’s Point of View

Cats that are exposed to Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria get sick from the infection (bordetellosis) much less commonly than do dogs. Some cats are chronic carriers of the bacteria and shed it periodically without ever having or showing any signs of illness.

These carrier cats are sources of infection to other animals, including cats, dogs, rabbits, pigs and people. Some cats with bordetellosis feel mildly sick from time to time, while others – especially very young kittens – develop severe, progressive and life-threatening bronchopneumonia which involves severe respiratory distress.

When affected cats do show clinical signs of bordetellosis, they typically develop a fever, sneeze, have breathing difficulties and have nasal (nose) and ocular (eye) discharges which can last up to 2 weeks or more. Cats with bordetellosis also often have painful enlarged lymph nodes, cough and lose their appetite.

Feline Bordetellosis – What the Owner Sees

Symptoms of bordetellosis in cats are similar to those of upper respiratory tract infections in people. Owners of cats with this disease may see no signs, or they may notice one or more of the following in their beloved companion:

  • Fever
  • Coughing (more common in dogs than cats; when cat’s develop a cough from bordetellosis, it tends to be moist and productive and is accompanied by breathing problems)
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Goopy eyes (ocular discharge; may be liquid or crusty)
  • Swollen and painful lymph nodes (under the shin/lower jaw, in the armpits, elsewhere)
  • Lethargy
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Loss of appetite (inappetence; anorexia)
  • Weight loss

These signs can appear together or separately and frequently are progressive, especially in immunocompromised animals. Bordetellosis symptoms often progress rapidly in cats that are fighting other underlying medical conditions, such as feline leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or other upper respiratory infections such as viral feline herpes.

Kittens can die from infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica in as little as 12 hours after their initial symptoms appear. Death is usually the result of secondary bacterial and/or viral infections that thrive as a result of the animal’s weak immune system. While the clinical manifestations of so-called “kennel cough” in cats may not seem particularly serious, the infection is extremely contagious.

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Cats suspected of having bordetellosis should be taken to a veterinarian and treated immediately.

Cats at Increased Risk of Bordetellosis

Cats that are living in high-density situations, such as in animal shelters, pet shops, backyard breeder catteries or kennel facilities, have an increased chance of becoming infected with the Bordetella bronchiseptica organism.

Diagnosing Kennel Cough (Bordetella) in Cats

Initial Evaluation

Bordetellosis in cats is somewhat difficult to diagnose, because the causative bacterium, Bordetella bronchiseptica, causes clinical signs that mimic those caused by other infectious agents.

Bordetellosis in cats often looks like other upper respiratory tract infections, such as feline rhinotracheitis (feline herpesvirus 1), feline calicivirus infection, Clamydophila felis infection and other infectious causes of feline pneumonia.

A definitive diagnosis requires identification of the specific bacterial or viral culprit. Many veterinarians suspect bordetellosis based on taking a complete history from the cat’s owner and performing a thorough physical examination.

This disease often goes away on its own without treatment, and many cats have only mild symptoms, if any. After the initial history and physical examination, the attending veterinarian may decide to treat the cat based only on its symptoms of upper respiratory tract distress (problems or difficulty breathing, medically referred to as “dyspnea”).

Diagnostic Procedures for Feline Bordetellosis

After the initial evaluation, most veterinarians will take blood and urine samples to assess the cat’s overall health. These typically include a complete blood count (CBC), serum biochemistry profile (chem panel) and urinalysis.

Many cats that are infected with the Bordetella organism are also suffering from other causes of upper respiratory tract disease. Thorough blood and urine evaluation, including feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus tests, are normally performed to round out the assessment of the causes of the kitty’s condition.

The attending veterinarian may also recommend taking thoracic radiographs (chest X-rays) to assess the possibility of pneumonia. Unfortunately, the results of all of these tests are often unremarkable and inconclusive in cats with bordetellosis.

Advanced testing includes doing a culture and sensitivity assessment of the cat’s blood, oral, lung and/or nasal secretions, which involves trying to grow the offending bacterial organisms in the laboratory.

The veterinarian will take swab samples of secretions from the cat’s nasal passage and/or from its throat, and may take other samples with other techniques, and will get a urine sample as well.

The samples will be placed into sterile tubes and sent to an outside laboratory for culture and microorganism identification. Isolation of Bordetella bacteria where the cat is obviously ill is fairly easy.

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It’s much more difficult to isolate Bordetella from samples taken from cats who are chronic carriers of the organism but don’t show any signs of being sick, because many healthy cats will have positive cultures for Bordetella bronchiseptica.

Outside laboratories can take 48-72 hours to produce results. As a result, many veterinarians make an initial diagnosis of bordetellosis based upon the cat’s history and clinical presentation, especially if the cat lives, or recently lived, in an area housing multiple cats or in a household with a dog that was recently diagnosed with bordetellosis.

Treating Kennel Cough (Bordetella) in Cats

Therapeutic Goals

The goals of treating bordellosis in companion cats – which is an infection with the highly infectious bacterium, Bordetella bronchiseptica – are to eliminate the organism from the cat’s bloodstream, typically using antibiotic therapy, providing supportive care and relieving the animal’s clinical symptoms, including the productive moist cough that often accompanies this disease.

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Treatment Options for Feline Bordetellosis

Bordetellosis in cats usually can be successfully treated by using antibiotic therapies. Treatment of affected cats coming from multi-cat households should include treating all cats for the disease and using proper disinfecting measures.

Uncomplicated cases of feline bordetellosis are best treated on an outpatient basis, both for the welfare of the affected animal and equally importantly to prevent cross-infection of other hospitalized cats.

A number of oral antibiotics are available to treat this disease in cats and kittens, normally over a 10-to-14 day course of therapy but possibly longer. Cats with complicated disease, including those that actually develop pneumonia, should be treated as inpatients in a veterinary hospital, as they likely will require intravenous fluid and intravenous antibiotic therapy.

Cough suppressants can also be helpful, although they can reduce clearance of infectious organisms and typically are not recommended for cats with pneumonia. Because bordetellosis is very contagious and rapidly progressive in kittens and cats that have weak or compromised immune systems, many veterinarians will begin antibiotic treatment for suspected Bordetella bronchiseptica infection even before laboratory results to diagnose the inciting organism are completed.

All cats that have come into contact with an infected cat (or with environmental areas frequented by the infected animal) should be placed on antibiotic treatment as well. Owners should not wait until their cats begin to show signs before starting antibiotic therapy.

Feeding dishes, water dishes and living spaces should also be thoroughly disinfected. Cats and kittens that are diagnosed with Bordetella bronchiseptica infection should be quarantined from all other cats until their treatment is finished. Enforced rest for the duration of treatment, and often for up to at least 21 days, is highly recommended. Adequate hydration is essential as well.

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