Prevalence of upper respiratory pathogens in four management models for unowned cats in the Southeast United States

Cats may like to project an aura of mystery, but one thing we do know is this: Whether confined in an animal shelter or living as free-roaming community cats, felines are remarkably susceptible to upper respiratory infections (URI). How can the transmission of the infections best be managed?

You can’t look at a cat and know whether it’s carrying infectious disease. Controlling disease by spearateing cats based on what they look like isn’t a good strategy. Knowing that, you can’t let you guard down and not use all the tools we have to keep them healthy — all the tools

In a study published in The Veterinary Journal, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida researchers looked at four different management models utilized at shelters in Florida and Georgia:

1. Temporary housing in traditional short-term animal shelters (STS) pending adoption or euthanasia

2. Life-long housing in long-term sanctuaries (LTS)

3. Temporary home-based foster care programs (FCP)

4. Community cat trap–neuter–return programs (TNR)

Roughly equal numbers of cats consdiered clinically healthy (‘nonclinical cats’) and cats with clinical signs of URI were part of the study. Researchers collected samples at shelters, foster homes, and TNR clinics.

In the study abstract, the authors wrote:

Upper respiratory infection (URI) is a pervasive problem in cats and impacts the capacity and cost of sheltering programs. This study determined the pattern of respiratory pathogens in cats with and without clinical signs of URI in four different models for managing unowned cats, namely, (1) short-term animal shelters (STS), (2) long-term sanctuaries (LTS), (3) home-based foster care programs (FCP), and (4) trap–neuter–return programs for community cats (TNR). Conjunctival and oropharyngeal swabs from 543 cats, approximately half of which showed clinical signs of URI, were tested for feline herpes virus-1 (FHV), feline calicivirus (FCV), Chlamydia felis, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Mycoplasma felis, and canine influenza virus by real-time PCR.


FHV (59%, 41%) and B. bronchiseptica (33%, 24%) were more prevalent in both clinically affected and nonclinical cats, respectively, in STS than other management models. FCV (67%, 51%) and M. felis (84%, 86%) were more prevalent in LTS than any other management model. Clinically affected cats in FCP were more likely to carry FHV (23%, 6%), C. felis (24%, 10%), or M. felis (58%, 38%) than were nonclinical cats. Clinically affected cats in TNR were more likely to carry FCV (55%, 36%) or C. felis (23%, 4%) than were nonclinical cats. The prevalence of individual pathogens varied between different management models, but the majority of the cats in each model carried one or more respiratory pathogens regardless of clinical signs.


Both confined and free-roaming cats are at risk of developing infectious respiratory disease and their health should be protected by strategic vaccination, appropriate antibiotic therapy, effective biosecurity, feline stress mitigation, and alternatives to high-density confinement.

This study was supported by a grant from Maddie’s Fund and by the Watkins family. PCR testing was contributed by IDEXX Laboratories, Inc.

The study abstract is available at the link below; subscribers can read the complete study for free, while non-subscribers can access it for a fee, at the same link.

C.M. McManus, J.K. Levy, L.A. Andersen, S.P. McGorray, C.M. Leutenegger, L.K. Gray, J. Hilligas, S.J. Tucker, Prevalence of upper respiratory pathogens in four management models for unowned cats in the Southeast United States, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 201, Issue 2, August 2014, Pages 196-201, ISSN 1090-0233,