Feline Bordetella Explained

Feline bordetella is a contagious respiratory infection of cats. The symptoms of the disease can be mistaken for a wide variety of other upper respiratory illness in cats or can be overlooked entirely.

What Causes Feline Bordetella Infection?

Feline bordetella is caused by the bacteria bordetella bronchiseptica. The virus is transmitted in the saliva and respiratory secretions on infected animals. Some cats are carriers of the illness, shedding bacteria without showing any signs of illness. Carriers can transmit the infection to other cats by sharing of food and water bowls, mutual grooming, and sneezing or coughing. Crowded or stressed conditions such as those found at animal shelters, catteries, show competitions, can provide ideal conditions for transmission of the illness. Bordetella can also be transmitted from dogs to cats.

Research data indicates that exposure in the feline population is approximately twenty-five percent. But that risk is increased in those cats that are in frequent contact with other cats. As high as eighty percent of cats are at risk if they are a part of multi-cat homes, or are boarded, or come from catteries or shelters (any situation where they are around a large group of cats).

The bacteria are unable to survive for long periods of time outside the host and are easily destroyed by disinfectants, extreme temperature and pH. However, in the presence of infected respiratory secretions survival may be long enough for cats to become infected by indirect transfer of the bacteria.

Symptoms of Feline Bordetella Infection 

Signs of feline bordetella usually begin within five days of exposure and include:

  • sneezing
  • fever
  • nasal discharge
  • swollen and enlarged lymph nodes under the lower jaw
  • rales (specific lung sounds that come from the presence of fluid)

Cough may or may not be present in feline bordetella and is not as specific an indicator as it is with dogs. Other symptoms can include dull, watery eyes, resistance to eating, and weight loss. The symptoms are usually mild, resolving after about ten days; however, in some cats, especially kittens, bordetella can lead to life threatening pneumonia. Chronic carriers of the disease have been shown to shed the virus for up to 19 weeks.

Diagnosis of feline bordetella is not made by physical exam alone. The most definitive diagnosis is derived from positive mouth or mucous discharge for the bordetella organism. Carrier cats may not culture positive for the bacteria unless they are actively shedding the bacteria such as in times of birthing or stress. B. bronchiseptica is usually carried asymptomatically.

Treatment of Feline Bordetella Infection

Feline bordetella is treatable with antibiotics. Tetracycline at a dosage of 10mg per kilogram is given every 8 hours. Alternatively, doxycycline at 10 mg per kilogram may be given every 24 hours or amoxicillin/clavulonic acid 62.5 mg twice a day may be used.

The cat should be cared for by using cotton dipped in warm water to wipe the eyes and nose to remove mucous. To stimulate the cat’s appetite, try rubbing some meat jelly onto the gums to induce the flow of saliva. He should be kept in a quiet room, isolated from other cats until recovery is complete. Food bowls, bedding and litter trays should be washed and cleaned daily. Wear gloves when caring for the cat and his belongings and wash your hands immediately after removing gloves to prevent transmission of the bacteria to other cats and areas of the home.

Presently, the main preventative to bordetella infection is to limit stress and exposure to other cats. A nasal vaccine is available but is usually reserved for high-risk animals. The most effective protection is obtained when vaccination is combined with good health and sanitation practices.