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Sneezing in Cats and Kittens

sneezing kitten

There are many potential causes of sneezing in cats and kittens. The most common categories are upper respiratory infections, rhinitis or sinusitis, nasopharyngeal polyps, foreign bodies, parasites, trauma, and neoplasia. Keep reading to learn more about these possible causes and how your cat’s symptoms can be diagnosed and treated.

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Sneezing in cats is common, often considered normal, and may even sound cute at times. It’s usually not a cause for concern especially if it occurs sparingly. However, frequent sneezing can be an indication of a health problem, and appropriate veterinary attention may be needed to assess the underlying cause.

Sneezing is a cat’s natural way to clear its nasal cavity of any foreign objects or irritants. When they accidentally inhale dust, pollen, or other objects that are small enough to enter their nostrils and get trapped within the nasal passages, sneezing is the body’s way to attempt to remove them.

For the most part, sneezing is a very effective means for a cat’s body to remove any inhaled irritants and protect the respiratory tract. But in cases where sneezing is persistent, excessive, and causes nasal discharge such as mucus and blood, a proper diagnosis is needed to control the animal’s sneezing fits.

Causes of Sneezing in Cats and Kittens

Simple Irritation

Inhalation of strong scents or environmental irritants is the most common cause of sneezing in cats. These animals can have sensitive olfactory senses and can detect even the most subtle scent in the environment.

They react to strong scents similarly to us, and while these are usually not strong enough to cause a serious inflammatory or allergic reaction, it’s enough to irritate the lining of the cat’s nasal passages and cause sneezing. For most cases, the sneezing usually stops as soon as the exposure has been eliminated, and no medications are usually needed.

Upper respiratory infection (URI)

  • Typically caused by Herpesvirus and/or Calicivirus, but can also be caused by bacteria such as Chlamydofila felis and Bordetella bronchiseptica (yes, the very same bacteria that causes “Kennel Cough” in dogs), as well as some Mycoplasma species
  • Mostly affects kittens and older immunocompromised cats
  • Contagious, can be accompanied by severe clinical signs and require medical treatment or be short-lived and mild, self-resolving infections
  • FVRCP vaccine protects your cat against Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia.

For more information, please see our article about vaccinating your cat!

You can read more about cat colds and upper respiratory infections here!

Rhinitis or Sinusitis

  • Allergic rhinitis or sinusitis
  • Seasonally - pollen production
  • Perennially - house dust and molds
  • Smoke aspiration or inhalation of irritant gases and dust (candles, incense, plug-ins, aerosol sprays)
  • Secondary bacterial infections are common due to increased mucous production and decreased mucociliary clearance
  • Lymphoplasmacytic rhinitis a.k.a. idiopathic chronic inflammatory disease. This is often the result of acute viral infections of the nasal and sinus mucosa (lining).
  • Mycotic rhinosinusitis - May be caused by the fungi Cryptococcus neoformans (more common in cats than dogs), Aspergillus spp, and Penicillium spp.
  • Rhinitis or sinusitis due to a tooth root abscess that has entered the maxillary sinus cavity

Nasopharyngeal polyps

  • Benign, fleshy masses found in the nose or nasopharynx (especially above the soft palate)
  • Usually grow on a stalk, usually fairly small but can grow up to 2cm diameter
  • More common in cats, rare in dogs
  • Exact cause unknown

Foreign body

Parasites

  • Cuterebra spp larva of the rabbit/rodent bot fly
  • Adult flies do not feed or bite
  • Infestation:
    • Females deposit 5-15 eggs around the openings of animal nests and burrow
    • Cats become infested as they pass through contaminated areas
    • Eggs hatch in response to heat from the cat’s body
    • Larvae enter the cat through the mouth or nostrils during grooming (less commonly, through open wounds)
    • Larvae migrate to various species-specific subcutaneous locations on the body, where they develop and communicate with the air through a breathing pore
    • After ~30 days, the larvae exit the skin, fall to the soil, and pupate
    • The “breathing pore” appears as a volcano-like raised firm opening in the skin, but may not be visible to a cat’s owner if this opening is into the nostrils

Trauma

  • Hit by a car, animal bite wound, etc.
  • Can cause facial deformation, scar tissue build-up, etc.

Neoplasia (cancer)

  • 90% of all nasal tumors in cats are malignant (this does not refer to polyps)
  • Most nasal tumors are “primary” and arise from cells in the nasal cavity or sinuses
  • Most common nasal tumors in cats:
    • Lymphoma
    • Carcinomas (tumors of epithelial cell origin)
    • Adenocarcinoma
    • Squamous Cell Carcinoma
    • Sarcomas (tumors of mesenchymal cell origin) – less common
    • Other less common tumors: Mast cell tumors, neuroblastoma, melanoma, hemangiosarcoma, leiomyosarcoma, peripheral nerve sheath tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, and fibrous histiocytoma

Periodontal (Dental) Disease

The dental architecture and nasal passages of a cat are closely associated with each other. Some dental roots in the maxilla (upper jaw), particularly the premolars and molars, have roots that extend up to the border of the nasal passages. Infections in the roots of these teeth can leak into the nasal passages and cause sneezing in cats.

A thorough physical exam and diagnostic tests such as blood work and radiographs (x-rays) can help determine if the cause of sneezing is due to a pre-existing periodontal disease. For these cases, treating periodontal disease is the only way to control sneezing. Medications directed to control sneezing and inflammation are usually ineffective since the primary problem is originating elsewhere.

Testing/Diagnosis of Sneezing in Cats

Diagnosis of sneezing in cats can be very simple or may be complicated, depending on the underlying cause. Common diagnostic steps include:

  • History
  • Physical exam
  • Allergy testing:
    • Blood work – environmental and food, with regular veterinarian
    • Intradermal – environmental and food, with dermatologist, more accurate test
  • Radiographs (x-rays), ct (computed tomography) – to rule out masses/tumors
  • Rhinoscopy – camera on scope, to visualize the nasal turbinates, rule out foreign bodies
  • Nasal biopsy – to determine if any neoplasia (cancer) is present
  • Lavage (flushing of the nasal/sinus passages)
  • Deep nasal tissue culture – to determine which bacteria and/or fungi are causing infection

Treatment for Sneezing in Cats

Treatment for your cat’s sneezing is based on clinical signs and diagnosis. This may include:

  • Flushing nasal passages with saline
  • Cleaning and wiping away mucous and crust from nose/mouth/eyes
  • Oral antihistamines
  • Oral systemic antibiotic or antifungal therapy
  • Allergy injections
  • Hospitalization & intravenous fluid/antibiotic support, etc.
  • Radiation for intranasal neoplasia (cancer)

Please note: If there is no response to treatment or treatment is unsuccessful, sometimes surgery (sinusotomy or rhinotomy), lavage, and biopsy are necessary to reestablish a definitive diagnosis.

NOTE! Never give your cat any type of human medication unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian! Many types of pain medications, fever reducers, and decongestants contain substances that are toxic and potentially life-threatening to cats.

Read more:

Top 3 Causes of Conjunctivitis in Cats

Everything You Need to Know About Your Cat’s Dental Health

Causes of Yellow/Green Discharge from Your Cat’s Nose

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