A Harmless Sniffle or Sneeze, or Is It Something More Serious?

Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Cats

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  • Most kitties, like dogs and humans, sneeze from time to time, and even have a runny nose once in awhile. If these symptoms are mild and disappear quickly, there’s usually no cause for concern. However, if a cat’s sneezing or nasal discharge comes on suddenly, seems unusually severe, or keeps coming back, it’s time for a visit to the veterinarian.
  • Sneezing and nasal discharge are symptoms of literally dozens of disorders, some of which are self-limiting, such as an acute viral infection, while others are recurrent, for example, seasonal allergies. But certain conditions are definitely cause for concern, including tumors and foreign bodies in the nasal cavity.
  • Beyond sneezing and discharge, other signs of nasal or sinus disease in kitties include rubbing or pawing at the face, excessive swallowing, gagging, bleeding from the nose, a foul smell from the mouth or nose, swelling over the bridge of the nose, loud breathing, lethargy, and lack of appetite. Any of these symptoms that seem severe, recur frequently, or have become chronic should prompt a trip to the vet, as your kitty could have a condition requiring treatment.
  • If your pet is diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus, which is a common cause of sneezing, nasal discharge and other symptoms, it will typically run its course in a matter of weeks. During this time, it’s important that your cat eats and receives supportive care, which may include fluid replacement, appetite stimulants, homeopathics, and nutraceuticals.
  • The best way to help your pet avoid illness is to maintain her immune system in optimum condition by minimizing stressors in her environment, feeding a biologically appropriate diet, and avoiding unnecessary vaccines.

By Dr. Becker

If you're owned by a cat, you know that like dogs and humans, most kitties sneeze from time to time, and some even experience nasal discharge once in awhile. But if these typically mild signs of allergies or a transient upper respiratory infection suddenly become severe, or if they're chronic or recurring, it can point to a more serious problem that requires evaluation by a veterinarian.

Why Cats Sneeze and When to Worry

A sneeze is a reflexive action of the upper airways that serves to discharge an irritant from the nasal cavity. The trigger for sneezing is usually irritation of sensitive nerve endings in the mucous membranes that line the inside of the nostrils.

Nasal discharge is another sign of irritation or disease in the nose, and can be clear, cloudy, or blood-tinged in appearance (or a combination). The discharge might affect one nostril or both, and may be categorized as either acute (appearing suddenly) or chronic. Bleeding from the nose should always be investigated as it can signal an injury, tumor, bleeding disorder, or even a tick-borne infection.

In cats, just as in most other animals, sneezing and nasal discharge are symptoms of literally dozens of different conditions. Some disorders are self-limiting, such as an acute viral infection, while others are recurrent, as in the case of seasonal allergies. Other conditions are of more immediate concern, including tumors and foreign bodies in the nasal cavity.

Cats at Higher Risk of Nasal Disease, and Signs to Watch For

Nasal disease can affect cats of both genders and any age. Kittens and younger cats are more likely to acquire contagious respiratory infections (typically viruses), or have birth defects that affect the nose, such as a cleft palate.

Older kitties that develop sneezing and/or nasal discharge should be checked for chronic dental disease or tumors. Cats that live or spend lots of time outdoors are prone to inhalation of foreign bodies such as foxtails that can lead initially to acute symptoms, and then develop into chronic upper airway disease. Some fungal infections are also more prevalent in cats than dogs, for example, cryptococcus.

The first thing most pet parents notice in a cat with potential nasal or sinus disease are the classic symptoms of sneezing and nasal discharge.

Additional signs can include rubbing or pawing at the face, excessive swallowing triggered by post-nasal drip, gagging, bleeding from one or both nostrils, a foul smell from the mouth or nose, swelling over the bridge of the nose, audible breathing, lethargy, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

When to See Your Veterinarian

If your cat is sneezing or experiencing nasal discharge that seems severe, recurs frequently, or has become chronic, it's very important to have him evaluated by your veterinarian to determine if a condition exists that requires treatment.

There are several different bacteria and viruses that cause upper respiratory disease complex in felines. The two most common are feline herpes 1, also known as rhinotracheitis, and calcivirus. Other causes can be an infection with bordetella, mycoplasma, reovirus, chlamydia, or pasteurella. These diseases can also develop as secondary infections to a primary infection with rhinotracheitis or calcivirus.

If your pet has an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus, it will typically run its course in one to four weeks. During this time, it's important that your cat eats. Since kitties are interested in food because of the aroma, a cat who is congested or has inflamed mucous membranes in her nasal or sinus cavity won't be able to pick up food smells and may choose not to eat. Anorexia in a cat can have serious consequences, most notably, deadly hepatic lipidosis.

Since there's no specific antiviral medication for feline infections, it's important to give your cat supportive care in the form of fluids, appetite stimulants, homeopathics, and nutraceuticals that will help her immune system overcome the virus.

A less common cause of chronic sneezing is nasal polyps or tumors. If your cat's sneezing is getting progressively worse, getting a diagnosis at the vet's office will be very important in identifying the underlying cause (and treatment) necessary to help her.

Helping Your Kitty Stay Healthy

You can help prevent sinus and nasal infections and other illnesses in your pet by taking steps to support his immune system:

  • Don't smoke where your cat lives. Second-hand smoke significantly impacts your cat's respiratory and immunologic health.
  • Eliminate synthetic room sprays, fragrance plug-ins, carpet deodorizers, artificially scented candles and potpourri.
  • Switch to a dust-free litter.
  • Consider an air purifier if your home is carpeted or more than 30 years old.
  • Offer food and water out of non-toxic stainless steel or glass bowls (eliminate plastic containers and porcelain from China that may contain heavy metal glazes).
  • Minimize stressful events in your kitty's life and provide environmental enrichment.
  • Feed a balanced, fresh food, species-appropriate diet. Avoid dry food (which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and acrylamides).
  • Scrutinize food labels: eliminate all grains, byproducts, preservatives, colorings.
  • Use extreme caution when it comes to vaccinating your cat, especially if she has been diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection at any point in her life. If your kitty received a full set of well-timed kitten shots and she lives indoors, she likely has no need to be re-vaccinated as an adult.

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