Sneezing in Cats: Causes and Treatments

Sneezing is one of the chief signs of nasal irritation in cats. It is a reflex that results from stimulation of the lining of the nose. If the cat sneezes off and on for a few hours but shows no other signs of illness, it is most likely a minor nasal irritation or allergy. Irritants such as dust, cigarette smoke, and pollens could stimulate sneezing.

Sneezing that persists all day long could be the first sign of feline viral respiratory disease, especially herpesvirus or rhinotracheitis. A sudden bout of violent sneezing, along with head shaking and pawing at the nose, suggests a foreign body in the nose.

Bacterial infections also produce bouts of sneezing and sniffling. These tend to become chronic and quickly become associated with a mucoid to purulent discharge. Prolonged and severe sneezing can lead to a nosebleed.

Human cold viruses do not affect cats. However, cats are afflicted by a number of viruses that produce symptoms much like those of the human cold. Also, the same conditions that make us susceptible to viruses also make cats susceptible to viruses. These include crowding, poor ventilation, and stress. If your cat develops a runny nose along with a discharge from the eyes-and especially if the cat coughs, sneezes, and runs a slight fever-consult your veterinarian.

Laryngospasm (Reverse Sneezing)

Reverse sneezing is caused by a temporary spasm of the muscles of the larynx due to an accumulation of mucus at the back of the throat. This uncommon but harmless condition may be alarming because it sounds as if the cat has something caught in an air passage. During an attack, the cat violently pulls in air through his nose. This produces a loud snorting noise. The cat is perfectly normal before and after these attacks. Gently holding your hand over the cat's nose may help.

Foreign Body in the Nose

Nasal foreign bodies are not common in cats because of the small size of their nasal passages. Nevertheless, pieces of straw, grass seeds and awns, fish bones, string, wood splinters, and, occasionally, insects can become wedged in the nose.

A noticeable sign is the sudden appearance of violent sneezing-at first continuous and later intermittent-along with pawing at the nose. The cat may tilt his head to the affected side, the eye on that side may squint, or the cat may drop his nose to the floor, extend his neck and try to breathe deeply. Repeated clearing of the throat suggests that the foreign object is trapped at the back of the nasal cavity. Some foreign bodies produce few signs and may go unnoticed.

Foreign objects that have been in the nose for a day or longer are associated with secondary bacterial infection and a purulent discharge.

Cuterebra larvae can present as a purulent discharge from one nostril. These are fly larvae that are laid in the nasal passage, and the larvae then grow in that location. Anesthesia is often required to carefully remove the large larvae without damage to the cat's nose. You should not attempt this at home.

Treatment: If the foreign body is visible and close to the opening of the nostril, remove it with tweezers. Usually, however, it is lodged farther back. If you look down the throat, you may see a piece of string or grass bent over the soft palate projecting into the pharynx. Do not attempt to pull these out yourself. Go to your veterinarian.

If the foreign body is not visible and is not causing severe symptoms, the cat may yet expel it with time. If your cat is still uncomfortable after a couple of hours, though, you should contact your veterinarian. If the cat is unable to expel the foreign body, or if it is causing severe symptoms, the cat must be anesthetized by your veterinarian so they can locate and remove the object.

This article is excerpted from “ Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.