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Pneumonia in humans can be a scary diagnosis. People often experience shortness of breath and an overall sick feeling, which can sometimes result in a trip to the hospital. 

But what about our furry feline friends? Can cats get pneumonia? We’ll answer that question and many more throughout this article, so read on for everything you need to know about pneumonia in cats. 

What Is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia refers to inflammation in the lungs. The lungs have many tubes – from large (like the trachea or windpipe) to very small (like bronchioles) – that end in small sacs of air called alveolar sacs. 

In pneumonia, the lungs end up accumulating fluid inside these small alveolar sacs, preventing them from filling with air to supply oxygen to the body. Humans and any animal with lungs can develop pneumonia, but the causes vary between species.

Can Cats Get Pneumonia?

Yes, cats (and dogs) can get pneumonia. It is not a common diagnosis among our feline friends, but it is not very rare either.

Cats often demonstrate subtle signs of pneumonia, which can make it hard to detect. So how do you know if your cat has pneumonia? First, it’s important to understand the different types of pneumonia that can affect cats.

Types of Pneumonia in Cats

There are three main types of pneumonia in cats:

Aspiration pneumonia. Fluid or particulates being breathed in instead of swallowed may result in aspiration pneumonia in cats.

Infectious pneumonia. Cats can develop infectious pneumonia from many different kinds of pathogens (small organisms that cause infection), including bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and protozoa.

Inhalation pneumonia. This type of pneumonia in cats occurs when foreign material (such as smoke) is breathed into the airways

Causes of Pneumonia in Cats

Aspiration Pneumonia

Approximately half of cats with pneumonia have aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when your cat accidentally breathes in fluid or particulates such as vomitus, food, medication, or stomach acid. 

The most common reasons this happens include:

  • Sedation or anesthesia (when your cat is made unconscious with medications at the veterinarian)
  • Disease in the esophagus (the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach)
  • Neurologic issues
  • Force feeding (i.e. giving food or medication your cat did not choose to take)

Most animals that are diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia had recent gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting.

Infectious Pneumonia

Infectious pneumonia usually occurs because of immunosuppression, meaning there is some reason your cat’s immune system isn’t as strong as it should be. This could be due to age (young kittens), feline leukemia and/or feline immunodeficiency virus, stress (i.e. in an animal shelter or after a surgery), certain medications, or other concurrent illness.

Infectious pneumonia can be caused by a variety of things, including:

  • Viruses such as feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus-1, and feline infectious peritonitis
  • Bacteria such as Bordetella bronchiseptica, Mycoplasma spp., and Streptococcus spp.
  • Fungi such as Blastomyces dermatitidis, Coccidioides immitis, and Cryptococcus spp.
  • Protozoa such as Toxoplasma gondii
  • Parasites such as lungworms (i.e. Aelurostrongylus abstrusus) or roundworms migrating through the lungs such as Toxocara cati

Viruses and bacteria are the most common pathogens causing pneumonia and typically work together. However, in most cases, a virus causes your cat to become ill first, allowing bacteria that are normally found in their airways to proliferate and create a bacterial infection as well. In very young kittens, bacteria can be the primary cause of pneumonia. 

Fungal pneumonia in cats is rare and accounts for approximately 15 percent of cases, while protozoal pneumonia is very rare and accounts for approximately 5 percent. Parasites like roundworms are very common, but it is uncommon for them to cause significant pneumonia.

Inhalation Pneumonia

Inhalation pneumonia is caused by either smoke or a chemical that should not be breathed in. For example, cats that are in house fires inhale a lot of smoke, which often causes pneumonia.

Symptoms of Pneumonia in Cats 

Gray and white cat at vet

Pneumonia is harder to detect in cats, as 20 percent don’t have changes in breathing when they have pneumonia, and 40 percent do not show signs of overall illness like change in appetite. Still, pneumonia symptoms in cats may be present and can include:

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Decreased activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Changes in breathing (increase in effort as seen by movement of the belly, inability to rest or be comfortable, fast breathing, or open-mouth breathing)
  • Weakness
  • Fever 

Diagnosing Pneumonia in Cats

In order to determine a diagnosis, your veterinarian will start by examining your cat. In milder forms of pneumonia, the lungs sound normal on examination, so X-rays are crucial. X-rays show inflammation in the lungs and certain patterns that can hint at the cause, but they alone cannot fully determine what caused the pneumonia. That’s why history is very important in helping to determine what type of pneumonia your cat has (for example, if they had been vomiting or were in a house fire).

Viruses are difficult to detect with testing but may be found by swabbing the back of your cat’s throat. To determine what type of bacteria is involved in your cat’s pneumonia, a test using a fluid sample from the lungs is often recommended (i.e. bronchoalveolar lavage). Fungi and protozoa are typically diagnosed with blood tests that detect the presence of the pathogen in the body. Parasites are diagnosed with fecal (poop) testing. 

Treating Cat Pneumonia 

Cat at veterinary hospital getting treatment

Most cases of pneumonia are treated with antibiotics and supportive care. While bacteria may not be the primary cause of pneumonia when viruses are present, they frequently worsen the pneumonia, so antibiotics are crucial. Supportive care such as fluid therapy to hydrate your cat helps keep them healthy while they recover.

If your cat is very ill and having trouble breathing, hospitalization may be necessary. When cats are struggling to breathe, they cannot eat, drink, or take medicine by mouth. Veterinary hospitals can give your cat oxygen therapy to help them breathe, as well as fluids and medication through an intravenous (IV) catheter.  

Nebulization is a very important way of treating your cat’s pneumonia at home. This involves putting saline and medication into a small machine that blows concentrated air through the solution, filling a small space for your cat to breathe in the medicated air. Putting your cat in a carrier with moistened towels covering the openings while the nebulizer is running is a great way to trap the medicated air in the carrier.

Fungal, protozoal, and parasitic pneumonia require specific medication depending on the exact pathogen causing it. Fungal and protozoal pneumonia are difficult to treat, as medication must be given for several months before success is achieved.

Prognosis for Cats with Pneumonia

Cats with mild or moderate pneumonia that respond to antibiotics have a good prognosis. Cats that are very ill and struggling to breathe have a worse prognosis, although around 90 percent of these cats survive with hospitalization. 

Fungal and protozoal pneumonia can be difficult to treat, and if your cat is very ill already due to these pathogens, waiting weeks before seeing improvement may not be possible.

How to Prevent Pneumonia in Cats

If your cat develops gastrointestinal symptoms (such as vomiting) that occur more than once, they should be seen by a veterinarian right away. If your cat is being force-fed or takes large volumes of liquid medication, seek advice from your veterinarian to avoid accidentally forcing your cat to aspirate food or medication instead of swallowing it.

Preventing your cat from eating small prey like mice is ideal. Keep your cat away from cats of unknown health status, especially other cats’ feces or litter boxes. This will help avoid protozoa and parasites. 

If you work with any chemicals that are dangerous when inhaled, do not allow your cat to be anywhere near them.