Cats, like many animals, will sneeze from time to time. An occasional sneeze, as with humans, is rarely of concern. If you notice that this sneezing becomes frequent, or there are other signs, then you may need to go to your vet’s for a pet check.
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What’s the most common cause of sneezing in cats?
Cat flu (upper respiratory infection).
Viral infections are the most common cause of excessive, but temporary, sneezing in cats. 90% of infections are due to feline calicivirus or feline herpesvirus with exposure to infected saliva, tears or snot causing it to spread. Although sneezing is a common sign, most have other signs such as coughing, runny eyes, conjunctivitis, a snotty nose and mouth or eye ulcers. Many cats lose their appetite and become lethargic and febrile. Bacteria such as Bordetella bronchiseptica can cause similar signs including sneezing but is a less common culprit.
Older cats, kittens, and cats with reduced immune system function, can become very ill and develop secondary infections like pneumonia. In these cats, flu can be life-threatening. A vaccine is available and used routinely in the UK to protect against these viruses.
Treatment is aimed at the symptoms: giving intravenous fluids if there is dehydration; antibiotics if secondary bacterial infections are suspected; and steam and nebulizers to help breathing. Warmed tasty food is essential given their sense of smell is affected. Interferons (proteins produced by the body that fight viruses) have been produced but so far with limited effectiveness. There are some antivirals that may be helpful against oral and eye symptoms.
Most cats infected with herpesvirus remain carriers. Some don’t shed significant amounts of virus, some shed intermittently when stressed and may or may not show signs themselves. Stress may include having kittens or going to a cattery, for example. Many kittens are infected by apparently well mums in this way. Cats with FCV remain carriers for a few weeks but usually eliminate it.
My cat’s sneezing is not going away. What could be the cause?
There are a range of possibilities…
Post-viral or idiopathic rhinitis.
Some cats suffer permanent damage of the lining of the nasal cavity, or even the bone, after viral infection, leaving the nasal cavity susceptible to recurring bacterial infection. This post-viral rhinitis (nasal inflammation), is the most common cause of chronic nasal disease and sneezing. It can happen without viral involvement (idiopathic) but is less common and poorly understood.
As the damage is permanent, the aim is management not cure. This can be frustrating, with frequent vet visits and poor long-term quality of life. Antibiotics for bacterial infections are used but these infections can recur very frequently. Nebulisation can help to loosen secretions and allow more effective sneezing. In non-viral cases corticosteroid medication may help. Regular bathing of the face and nose, and warming food to make it more appealing, are basic considerations but important.
Tumours are the second most common cause of long term nasal disease. There are several types of tumours, but 50% are lymphoma. Adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas and fibrosarcomas make up most of the rest. More research is needed to explain how cats get nasal lymphoma. Exposure to tobacco smoke is implicated but evidence is lacking.
Cats may sneeze, have noisy breathing, a snotty nasal discharge that can be bloody, and have nasal swelling.
Vets may make a tentative diagnosis using signs alone but a biopsy is ideal. CT, MRI and ultrasound scans are useful for detecting the extent and spread of disease but not always possible. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can be used for nasal lymphoma but are not always possible. Cats with treatment can survive an average of 12-30 months as it is often a localised disease.
Nasal foreign body
Although more common in dogs, we occasionally see grass seeds or blades of grass lodged after attempted vomiting. Symptoms include sneezing and one-sided nasal discharge. Diagnosis and treatment is often by flushing the nose under anaesthetic, although some cases may be more complicated.
Dogs are more prone to inhaling fungal organisms. This is rare in cats. Signs may be very similar to other conditions so examination under anaesthesia is often needed and samples taken for culture if suspicion arises. Fungal infections can be challenging to treat and require specialist care, although some respond to antifungals.
Occasionally polyps (inflammatory swellings) can occur within the nasal cavity. Most come from the middle ear or eustachian tube (connects the nose to the middle ear) and grow into the back of the nasal passage (nasopharynx) causing sneezing, noisy breathing and nasal discharge. Surgical removal can be attempted but it may be hard to remove all tissue, so regrowth is possible and more specialist and complex surgery may be needed.
Disease of a tooth root may affect the nasal cavity causing sneezing and often other signs such as nasal discharge. Dental radiography to check tooth roots is ideal, followed by removal of any diseased teeth.
These are a common cause of sneezing in humans. It’s an uncommon cause in cats. Persian cats that are extremely flat-faced may sneeze more due to their facial conformation which can be ‘normal’ for them.
Your vet may ask you questions in an attempt to hone in on the cause of your cat’s sneezing. Thinking about these in advance may help:
- Did the clinical signs start suddenly or gradually?
- Has the sneezing been getting progressively worse?
- Is there ever a discharge from the nose or eyes? Is this one-sided or both sides?
- Is this discharge clear, watery, mucus or pus?
- Is there any blood present in the discharge (may be a sign of more severe disease such as fungal infection/neoplasia)?
- Is there any facial swelling and change to the conformation of the face or nose (may be a sign of more severe disease such as fungal infection/neoplasia)?
- Is there any evidence of involvement of the ears (sometimes seen with inflammatory polyps in particular)?
- Has there been a change in appetite or weight?
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