As the nights draw in and the seasons change, we find ourselves suffering from the occasional cough and sniffle. But what about our feline friends?
Well, just like us, the odd sneeze can be completely normal. However if you notice your cat sneezing more frequently than usual, or the sneezing is accompanied by loss of appetite, or discharge from the eyes and nose, it might be time to see your vet.
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But first, what actually is a sneeze? Sneezing is a defensive reflex designed by the body to clear the nasal passages of bacteria, dirt and other airborne particles. So anything that causes the membranes inside the nose to be irritated or inflamed will bring on a sneeze.
A few possible causes are discussed below along with how to know when to seek veterinary attention and what a trip to the vets might involve.
While that new air freshener may make your home smell lovely, have a think when your cat started sneezing. If it coincided with the use of a new cleaning product, perfume or diffuser then this could be the culprit. Stop using it for a while and see if the sneezing resolves. If your cat is sneezing more around the time they go to the toilet consider switching the type of cat litter you use, as some can be dustier than others.
Upper respiratory infections (cat flu)
Upper respiratory tract infections, often known collectively as ‘cat flu’, are some of the most common causes of sneezing in cats. The sneezing is frequently accompanied by a yellow discharge from the eyes and nose. They are often quite tired, and lack their usual appetite as they can no longer smell and taste their food.
Feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus account for up to 90% of cat flu cases. Healthy adult cats often only develop mild symptoms and recover within 7-10 days. Very young, old, stressed or immunocompromised cats are most at risk of getting very poorly and can develop pneumonia. Kittens in particular can develop eye ulcers, which can cause permanent damage and vision loss. These viruses are contagious and are spread by oral or nasal secretions. Large-scale outbreaks are therefore possible in multi-cat household and shelters and can be difficult to manage.
A clinical examination is usually sufficient for your vet to diagnose cat flu. Supportive treatment can involve intravenous fluid therapy to manage dehydration; antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections and heating food up to make it seem more appealing. Letting your cat join you in the bathroom while you shower can help as the steam can aid clearance of the nasal passages. If your cat will let you, try and wipe away the eye and nose discharge regularly.
Some cats will remain carriers and therefore flare-ups can occur at times of stress later in life. If the nasal cavity is damaged then chronic rhinitis can develop which may need long-term treatment (see below).
Vaccines against these viruses are routinely used in the UK, so contact your vet to ensure your cat is protected.
Rhinitis simply means ‘inflammation of the nasal membrane’ and there are several types, all of which can cause sneezing.
Allergic rhinitis is similar to our hayfever and is due to pollens or other air-borne particles.
Post-viral rhinitis is seen in cats that have previously had an upper respiratory tract infection where the lining of the nasal cavity has suffered permanent damage. This results in ongoing frequent bacterial infections. Diagnosis can be frustrating, as multiple tests are needed to rule out other causes initially. As there is no cure, treatment involves management of the symptoms and can involve repeated antibiotic courses and corticosteroid medication. Unfortunately as this is a chronic condition it can become expensive to treat and result in a poor-quality of life for your pet.
Polyps are benign inflammatory growths that can develop in the nasal passages and cause sneezing and noisy breathing. If they extend into the ear canal you may notice your cat scratching their ear or tilting their head to one side. If they grow more towards the back of the throat (nasopharynx) they may make swallowing difficult. Bacterial infections can also develop causing nasal discharge that may require antibiotics.
While some cats are very tolerant of us poking and prodding them, diagnosis usually requires a veterinary examination under sedation or general anesthesia so that the throat, nose and ears can be examined properly. Surgical removal is possible but regrowth can occur so sometimes more extensive surgery is required.
Unfortunately not all growths in the nose are polyps and some may be cancerous. They often cause the same clinical signs as polyps and so it can be hard for your vet to tell the difference initially. Although, malignant tumours are more likely to cause facial distortion. Again, full examination under sedation or general anaesthesia will be required and sampling of the abnormal tissue will allow a laboratory to diagnose the type of growth present.
As with polyps, surgical removal may be possible but this will be dependent on the size and type of tumour. Sometimes advanced specialist imaging is needed to visualize how far it may have spread and determine if surgery is possible. Follow-up treatment, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy may also be required.
In some cases a grass blade or seed becoming stuck in the nasal passage may cause sneezing and retching as your cat tries to dislodge it. Nasal discharge will be localized to one side and your vet will need to anaesthetize your cat to flush it out.
Sneezing in the age of Covid-19
And finally, what about the dreaded C-word? This year a very small number of cats showing respiratory signs have tested positive for Covid-19 (coronavirus). It is believed they caught it from humans but there is no evidence that cats can give it back to their human owners. Due to the incredibly small number of cases reported, however, it is far more likely that one of the reasons listed above is the cause of your cat sneezing, not coronavirus.
If sneezing is persistent or accompanied by other signs of ill health it is essential that you contact your veterinary practice for further advice.
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