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Medically known as sternutation, sneezing is the result of an involuntary expulsion of air through the mouth and nose that is caused by an irritation of the mucous membranes of the nose. The occasional bout of sneezing is generally nothing to worry about, all cats will sneeze from time to time. If the sneezing is persistent and/or is accompanied by other symptoms, veterinary attention is necessary to find the underlying cause.
There are many causes of sneezing. Some more serious than others.
Upper respiratory infection (either caused by a virus or bacteria). This is the most common cause of sneezing in cats. Pathogens include bordetella, chlamydia, mycoplasma, feline herpesvirus 1 and calicivirus.
Fungal infection such as cryptococcosis or aspergillosis
Cancer (osteosarcoma, lymphoma)
Allergies such as pollen (hay fever) can cause sneezing but cats are more likely to develop skin disorders as a result of allergies
Irritants such as cigarette smoke, chemicals and dust
Foreign object (grass seed etc)
Cleft palate a congenital abnormality or traumatic injury in which there is a split or a hole in roof of the mouth
If sneezing is the only symptom your cat is experiencing and he seems otherwise well, then a wait and see approach may be taken. If however there are other symptoms such as a runny nose or eyes, nosebleed, drooling, loss of appetite, weight loss, oral or facial swelling, lethargy or the sneezing doesn't resolve within a few days then you should see a veterinarian.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history. He will ask if the sneezing is acute (sudden onset) or chronic (long and persistent) if it occurs at a particular time (ie; seasonal), if there are other signs accompanying the sneezing, such as discharge (if any). All of this can narrow down the possible cause for your veterinarian.
There are different types of nasal discharge: serous (clear), mucoid, purulent, bloody. The type of discharge can help your veterinarian narrow down a cause.
If the sneezing is accompanied by a mucoid nasal or ocular discharge, fever, loss of appetite, eye discharge, sores in the mouth an upper respiratory infection is the likely cause.
- If the cat is shaking her head and or pawing at the nose, a foreign object may be lodged in the nostril.
- Nasopharyngeal polyps are quite rare in cats.
- If the cat also appears to suffer from itching, face/paw rubbing allergies may be the cause.
- If the sneezing occurs at a particular time of year it may be the result of a seasonal allergy, ie; pollen.
- If the sneezing on and off for a few hours, this may be nasal irritation or allergy (smoke, perfume etc). In this case, your veterinarian may suggest removing your cat from his environment for a few days to see if the sneezing stops.
- Sneezing accompanied by blood may be a sign of nasal cancer or fungal infection.
Tests your veterinarian may wish to perform include:
- Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis are all standard tests to evaluate the health of your cat, look for signs of infection and inflammation.
- Cytology (microscopic examination) of nasal secretions.
- Bacterial culture of nasal secretions.
- Biopsy of the nasal tissue.
- Rhinoscopy (examination of the nasal passages) with a small flexible tube known as an endoscope. This usually requires anesthesia.
- X-ray or CT scan can detect a dental abscess or cancer. This requires general anaesthesia.
- Platelet count in the case of blood coming from the nostrils.
- Fungal serology.
Treatment is aimed at addressing the underlying cause of sneezing and may include:
- Dental treatment and possible removal of a tooth in the case of a dental abscess. Your cat will be sent home with a course of antibiotics.
- Antifungal drugs for fungal infections.
- Antibiotics for bacterial infections. These may be primary or secondary.
- Surgery (where possible), chemotherapy and or radiotherapy for cancer. If cancer is in the nose it is not always possible to surgically remove the tumour, in which case your veterinarian may recommend chemotherapy which isn't curative, but can shrink the tumour and give you more time with your cat.
- Vaccination is the best way to prevent viral infections in cats, but if your cat already has caught 'cat flu' (feline herpesvirus or calicivirus), in most cases supportive care is all that can be provided. This may involve fluid treatment for dehydration, force feeding if the cat has become anorexic, removal of discharge from nose to assist breathing and eyes. L-Lysine may be recommended if the cause is Feline Herpesvirus and/or antivirals. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but may be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infections.
- Removal of the foreign body if that is the cause. Most foreign bodies in the nose are caused by blades of grass or grass seeds.
- Surgery to remove nasal polyps.
- Allergies are treated by avoiding the allergen where possible. Your veterinarian may recommend antihistamines to relieve symptoms. Never administer these medications without veterinary approval.
- Cleft palate will be repaired with surgery.
If your cat also has nasal discharge, putting him in a steamy bathroom can help to clear the airways. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend the use of saline nasal sprays or decongestants to help relieve a blocked nose. Never administer human medications to your cat to treat sneezing without veterinary supervision.
Appetite stimulants may be administered to a cat who is not eating.