Feline upper respiratory infections (URI) can be baffling and frustrating, but sometimes are very curable, especially if the cause is a bacteria called Bartonella henselae.
When I walked into my local Humane Society, it didn’t take very long to figure out why no one wanted to adopt "Charlie", an adorable silver tabby with watery eyes and a crusty nose. You couldn’t ignore the buzzing noise as he inhaled and exhaled through his tiny, constricted nostrils. Left behind after all his littermates and even his mother found new homes, Charlie the seven-month old kitten, was battling an URI almost since the day he was born.
The shelter director explained that this kitten had been treated with a variety of antibiotics but never seemed to respond to any of them. She said if I decided to adopt him, I could "always bring him back and choose another cat if his condition persisted." There was no other cat for me; Charlie was the one I wanted. He looked and acted like a playful, wholesome kitten in every other way and I was determined to take him under my wing and nurse him back to health.
Immediately after I adopted him, we paid a visit to a veterinarian and Charlie was back on the antibiotic Clavamox for the next two weeks, after which there was absolutely no improvement. In fact, he seemed to be doing worse by discharging copious amounts of thick mucus and suffering fits of severe sneezing. The vet decided to switch him to Orbax, a more potent antibiotic for two more weeks. But again, the outcome was disappointing there was no significant change. The vet said it was now time for further investigation with diagnostic testing for nasopharyngeal polyps. This meant Charlie had to spend the day in the animal hospital under light sedation while they probed around for a polyp. Luckily they did not find one, but on the other hand, his condition persisted and there were still no answers.
Expensive and more invasive in nature, x-rays of the head was to be the next diagnostic step. But in reading over his notes, my vet hesitated and thought that because Charlie came from a shelter, he just may have come in contact with the Bartonella henselae bacteria. This incidentally, is the same bacterium that causes "Cat Scratch Fever" in humans. This astute veterinarian explained that most cats exposed to this bacteria, which is prevalent in multi cat communities like shelters, don’t exhibit any symptoms at all, but some do come down with an URI like Charlie’s. He recommended that he get tested before we venture any further. The blood test takes 5 to 7 days to get results, and when it came back positive, Charlie was aggressively treated for three weeks on Zithromax.
As I drizzled the last dropper full of Zithromax in Charlie’s mouth, he was still not doing any better. Feeling discouraged after this long series of failures, I decided on no more treatment for a while. But, as if by magic in seventy-two hours, all of Charlie’s symptoms disappeared -- the antibiotic had taken effect. His sneezing turned into blissful sniffing as he poked his fully functioning nose all around the house like it was a new cat toy.
The research on Bartonella henselae is relatively new, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, but there needs to be more awareness of this type of infection. Instead of automatically trouble-shooting URI symtoms with a myriad of antibiotics, a careful look into a cat's background can reveal important diagnostic information. It could spare cats from long suffering and their owners hundreds of dollars spent on the wrong treatment.
Tina is a freelance writer and graphic designer who works in the environmental science and engineering field. She has also loved and owned cats for more than twenty years.