Has your cat been sneezing a lot lately? Could it be linked to all the pollen in the air? Do cats even get hay fever like humans do? Read on and find out!

What is Hay Fever?

Hay fever is the common term for allergic rhinitis – this is where the body causes an inflammatory reaction localised in the nose when something it doesn’t like enters there. Antibodies in the upper airways bind to an allergen (a substance that causes an allergic reaction) and presents it to special inflammatory cells. These cells release chemicals, like histamine, to cause local inflammation. As you probably know, this inflammation presents as a red runny nose, sneezing, itchiness and sometimes difficulties breathing. 

Common allergens include pollen, dust and animal hair. Hay fever can be seasonal, such as with pollen only produced at certain times of year, or non-seasonal, such as with dust in the house. 

Can Cats Get Hay Fever?

Animals carry the same inflammatory cells as humans do, so can have allergic reactions as well. Cats can be sensitive to allergens in the air and produce similar signs to a human with hay fever. Allergic rhinitis is recognised in cats, causing a runny nose, sneezing, and difficulties breathing. However, allergies in cats are much more commonly linked to skin and gastrointestinal issues. Cats with allergies usually become very itchy, causing them to scratch and groom their skin excessively. This results in lost fur, damaged skin and secondary skin infections. Some allergies are also linked to food, which can sometimes cause vomiting or diarrhoea.

We know that cats can be allergic to seasonal allergens like pollen, which means that allergic rhinitis can be seasonal like in human hay fever.

How Do We Diagnose Hay Fever?

Unfortunately, there are few tests that directly identify allergies in cats, so we usually diagnose them by excluding other diseases first. Seasonal allergies are usually easier to diagnose than non-seasonal as their infrequency gives us a clue. Allergies that cause skin or gastrointestinal disease are diagnosed differently, usually by ruling out parasitic, bacterial and viral causes first.

We usually start by looking at the history and symptoms of the cat. 

This is important to identify if the issue really is related to the nose, or if it is located elsewhere. As above, the frequency of the symptoms can sometimes give us a clue too. Your vet will perform a full clinical exam of your cat to localise the disease.

We will then want to rule out other causes of nasal disease. 

These include the viruses herpesvirus and calicivirus, which are very common in younger or unvaccinated cats – both usually have other symptoms such as facial and oral ulcers respectively. We can take swabs from the nose and mouth to diagnose these. Both can sometimes be intermittent, like hay fever, only showing symptoms when the cat is stressed, which makes ruling them out important. Viral infection can sometimes cause permanent damage to the nose, leading to chronic rhinitis long after the virus has stopped causing disease itself. In these cats, we have to manage them symptomatically. 

There can also be nasal infections from bacteria or fungi. 

These can be diagnosed with nasal swabs or blood tests. Bacterial infections in the nose can be tricky, as they are often secondary to other diseases – it may be that we identify and treat a bacterial infection in your cat but need to do further investigations to determine why it had an infection in the first place. These are treated with antibiotics or antifungals respectively.

Rarer causes of nasal disease include polyps, foreign bodies and cancer. 

Polyps are benign growths in a cat’s nose (and sometimes mouth or ears) that can block airflow and cause irritation. Foreign bodies are objects that are inhaled by your cat that get stuck in their nose – these also block airflow and can cause secondary infections. Unfortunately, cancer can also cause blocking the airways and secondary infections, as well as disease elsewhere in the body. Luckily, cancer is less common in younger cats and tends to progress slowly rather than be intermittent like hay fever – it should still be considered however. We identify and rule out these diseases via x-ray or CT (3D x-rays) of the head, looking into the nose with a flexible camera, or taking a biopsy from the nose. Most of these diseases are treated by surgically removing if possible.

Finally, dental disease can also cause issues in the nose as well. 

Because the upper teeth are close to the nose, infection in these teeth can sometimes track upwards into the nostrils, causing discharge, inflammation and pain. A cat with nasal disease should always have its mouth looked at too, just in case dental disease is the cause.

Allergies themselves can sometimes be identified with special tests such as blood testing or skin testing.

These tests are generally reserved for skin allergies, but may be used for nasal allergies as well. If the results come back positive, it can reveal what specific allergens a cat is allergic to, which may help guide treatment. Remember however that allergic rhinitis is usually a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that we can only say it is the cause of nasal disease if all other causes have been ruled out. This means that finding nothing on previous testing is not necessarily a bad thing, and can give us more evidence that hay fever is the cause of your cat’s issues.

How Do We Treat Hay Fever?

Because it is so hard to identify allergic rhinitis in cats, we often have to treat it symptomatically. This may mean giving antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, drugs to break down mucus, anti-inflammatories, oxygen therapy, fluid therapy and pain relief, depending how severe the disease is. For cats having an acute allergic reaction, these are usually enough to get them back to normal.

Long-term control of allergies in cats is tricky. 

We sometimes prescribe antihistamines for mild flare-ups at home or at particular times of year. More severe allergies may require long-term steroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs. These often carry side effects, so these risks have to be weighed up. Other care at home includes keeping your cat’s nose clean and free of mucus, nebulisation therapy to moisten the nose, avoiding allergens (such as keeping your cat indoors if they are allergic to pollen) and regularly visiting the vets for check-ups. 

Can they be cured?

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to ‘cure’ allergies, so most cats and owners have to learn to manage the symptoms instead. A special therapy, called immunotherapy, can sometimes reduce or completely stop allergic reactions to certain allergens, but it is quite expensive and does not work in all cats.

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