Why Cats Sneeze: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
Cute? Definitely. It’s not hard to find cat sneezes entertaining, even adorable. However, when is it a cause for concern?
Yes, our feline friends can catch a cold and experience the same upper respiratory (URI’s) and sinus infections that humans can. However, there are other conditions that can also lead to those cute little sneezes.
Should I worry about my cat sneezing?
The act of sneezing is an involuntary, bodily reflex in response to irritants in the upper nasal passage. It helps to clear out irritants from the respiratory tract by blowing out air from the lungs through the nose and mouth. This function is prevalent throughout the animal kingdom, including your family dog, pet chickens and even elephants.
Cabbagetown Pet Clinic PSA: if you’re within 6 feet (2m) of an elephant about to sneeze, vacate the area immediately.
What Causes a Cat To Sneeze?
Our feline friends sneeze for the same reasons humans do: usually an itch in the nose, prompted by suspended particles in the air such as dust, smoke or even their own cat fur.
Sneezing is a normal, biological function when it occurs infrequently. It’s even normal for a cat to throw an occasional sneezing fit. However, it’s uncommon for a cat to sneeze several times a day for many days in a row. If sneezing persists – or if other symptoms develop along with sneezing – you may need to check with our veterinarians to see if treatment is required.
However, there can be more serious reasons why your cat is sneezing.
7 COMMON CAUSES OF WHY CATS SNEEZE:
1. External Irritation
When we think of external irritants, it’s noxious smells (such as chemicals) and exposure to toxins (rat poison) that come readily to mind. However, supposedly non-threatening household products can also trigger sneezing.
- cooking spices – pepper and cinnamon are two common sources – may irritate a cat’s sensitive nose, especially if she’s curious about what’s happening in the kitchen.
- household cleaning products, including those with bleach, vinegar or other chemicals.
- Essential oils: while they may enhance your mood and living experience, it could cause distress with your feline friend – your cat’s acute sense of smell may induce a sneezing fit.
2. Foreign Material
Curious cats get all sorts of foreign material lodged in their noses.
- Objects like lint, grass or a hair.
- Airborne bodies such as pollen, or other allergens.
- Dust and other airborne particles such as smoke.
As in humans, when these particles are inhaled by a cat, the animal’s reaction is to sneeze to expel the foreign debris. If sneezing doesn’t expel the lodged material, make arrangements for an appointment at our veterinary clinic immediately.
3. Upper Respiratory Infections (URIs)
If your cat is sneezing more than normal, it’s more than likely that your feline friend has an upper respiratory infection or URI. The most widespread respiratory infection is Feline Herpesvirus or FHV. It’s estimated that as many as 80-90% of all cats are infected with FHV.
Most cats have been exposed to upper respiratory viruses as kittens, and are chronic carriers of the virus. When cats get stressed or immunosuppressed, the dormant virus has the ability to re-emerge. In sneezing cats, viral URIs are usually – as a general rule – the underlying issue.
Although there is emerging research to suggest that existing medications could improve results for cats infected with herpesvirus, there is currently no cure, and infections are lifelong.
Other viral infections that can contribute to sneezing cats include Calicivirus (which the FVRCP combo vaccine provides protection against) and influenza.
Common symptoms of upper respiratory infection (URI) in cats include:
- Repeated sneezing over several hours or days
- An appearance of irregular discharge (yellow, green or bloody) from the nose or eyes
- Recurrent coughing or swallowing
- Lethargy and/or fever
- Dehydration and/or decreased appetite; weight loss
- Enlarged lymph nodes
4. Dental Disease
As the Pet Health Network notes, “dental disease can cause sneezing particularly involving root infections. Infections of the feline tooth can allow bacteria to establish in the nasal sinus with resulting inflammation and sneezing.”
Many pet parents are surprised to discover that dental disease can contribute to cat sneezing. Like most cases, sneezing is a symptom of a larger issue. The root canals of the teeth on the upper jaw are located right next to the nasal passages. When a tooth (or teeth) become infected, or when severe inflammation occurs, the wall between the tooth hole and the nasal passage can be breached. If left untreated, bacteria can travel to other parts of the body.
This condition is generally painful and serious. If you suspect that your cat has dental issues, a veterinary visit is strongly recommended.
5. Bacterial Infections
When you observe a yellow or green discharge originating from your cat’s nose or eyes – accompanied by excessive sneezing – it’s a sure sign of a bacterial infection.
In cats, bacterial infections rarely act alone; they almost always play a secondary role after a respiratory virus or other medical condition causes damage to the nasal passages. Always opportunists, bacteria use the occasion to take advantage of the weakened barriers that usually protect cats from such attacks.
As with most sneezing symptoms, neoplasia (tumors) is always on the list of possible reasons, in older cats especially. Aberrant (cancer) cells can grow inside the nasal passage, creating irritation and inflammation that causes the cat to sneeze. These tumors are typically detected visually via rhinoscopy or a nasal biopsy. When present, the diagnosis, regrettably, usually results in very poor outcomes.
7. Fungal Infections
Although relatively rare compared to viral or bacterial infections, fungal infections are a known cause of sneezing in cats. A fungus – known as Cryptococcus – is the most common offender.
By itself, a physical exam will not be adequate to distinguish a fungal infection from other causes of cat sneezing – rhinoscopy or a biopsy is typically needed to reach a definitive diagnosis.
My cat is sneezing more than usual. What should I do?
STEP 1: Study your cat’s environment and consider potential causes. Looking for patterns can help determine if your cat is sneezing due to an irritant, such as dust or perfume, or if it’s caused by an infection or other underlying condition.
- Does sneezing occur around the same time each day?
- Does it only happen in a specific room or during household activities?
- Have you introduced new cat litter? Dusty and/or scented litter may cause your cats to sneeze.
- Are you using new products in your home? Cats can be sensitive to the smell of cleaners, candles, scented oils and perfumes.
- Does your home need thorough cleaning? Dust or pollen are usually suspects.
STEP 2: If you do suspect your cat has an upper respiratory infection, here are some immediate steps you can take to provide some relief before you confirm a vet appointment.
- Remove any discharge from your cat’s nose and face with warm, moistened cotton or clean cloth.
- Attempt to get your cat to eat: warming up canned/wet food for easier digestion.
- Provide plenty of fresh water.
- Keep a humidifier humming to help keep your cat’s nasal passages moist.
STEP 3: If you have taken all the steps to rule out environmental causes and your cat’s sneezing still persists, it’s time to schedule a veterinary appointment.
When is it Time to See My Veterinarian?
If your cat sneezes once in a while, and has no other symptoms (or has only mild symptoms) you may want to simply monitor them for a few days. There’s probably nothing to be concerned about at this point. As a precaution, keep your cat indoors and watch for changes.
However, these signs – accompanied with excessive sneezing – are more serious and require an immediate vet visit:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Nasal discharge
- Worsening of symptoms
- Persistence of symptoms beyond a few days
Treatment of Upper Respiratory Infections in Cats
Treatment for an excessively sneezing feline is typically targeted towards an underlying cause – the culprit that usually emerges is an upper respiratory infection.
While a wide variety of treatments are available, owners should be aware that the goal in most cases – especially chronic ones – is to reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms, not to cure them.
The severity of the upper respiratory infection will determine the treatment response. In cases with mild symptoms, URIs may resolve on their own after a couple of weeks or be aided by simpler treatment solutions.
Treatments for mild cases:
- Humidifiers or vaporizers
- Antihistamines and decongestants
- Antinausea medications
- Eye and/or nose drops
For more progressive cases, treatments options may include:
- Antiviral medications or antibiotics: Although bacterial infections are rarely the primary issue, antibiotics are often used to make your kitty feel better faster.
- Nasal Lavage: Flushing the nasal passages is done under general anesthesia can temporarily ease symptoms, regardless of the cause. It can also dislodge hidden foreign material.
- Subcutaneous fluids (to alleviate dehydration)
- Surgery (in extreme cases)
Advanced cases may require hospitalization to administer more intensive treatments, such as IV fluids and nutritional support. Upper respiratory infections – if left untreated – can lead to other serious complications such as pneumonia ands chronic breathing issues.
When your cat sneezes, it’s usually because of some simple, benign cause: a floating particle (ie. dust, pollen) that gets inhaled through the nose. This irritates the nasal passage causing in an involuntary bodily function present in all mammals – a sneeze.
However, if your beloved kitty companion is persistently sneezing and has nasal discharges, it’s time to see one of our fearless and compassionate veterinarians. We’re here to help.
Felines with upper respiratory infections are not uncommon in most vet practices. Fortunately, the majority of infections respond well to treatment and your cat will continue to lead a fulfilling life of sleeping, insisting to be fed and ignoring you.