Updated - Mar 29th, 2023
If you’re wondering, “Why is my cat sneezing?” You’re not alone! Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if it’s allergies, a cold, or they just got a little too excited about their catnip toy.
Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure – occasional sneezing is normal. However, if your cat keeps sneezing more than usual or shows other worrisome symptoms, it’s never a bad idea to call your vet for advice.
The causes of sneezing in cats
There could be several reasons why your cat is sneezing. The first step in getting to the bottom of it is to figure out whether their sneezing fits are acute or chronic.
Acute cat sneezing
Acute cat sneezing may be due to:
- Irritants (such as chemicals, cigarette smoke, cleaning products/fragrances, perfumed cat litter box, etc.)
- Allergens or foreign bodies such as blades of grass. Although allergies don’t have a cure, your vet may recommend diet, medication, or specialized allergy immunotherapy to help ease your cat’s sneezing.
- A parasitic infection (e.g., Cuterebra in the nose).
Chronic cat sneezing
Chronic cat sneezing may be due to:
- Inflammation (called rhinitis)
- Fungal infections
- Cancer (which needs appropriate workup and long-term management.)
Most of the time, cat sneezing is just a sign of an upper respiratory infection (URI). Don’t worry, it’s a pretty common issue, especially if you’ve recently adopted your cat or brought them home from a shelter. That said, here’s what you need to know about URIs, or what I call “cat colds!”
What is a feline upper respiratory infection (URI)?
Feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) are a common cause of sneezing, runny eyes, discharge from the nose, and even eye infections in cats. While some cases of cat colds can be mild and only result in the occasional sneeze, others can impact your cat’s immune system. You may notice decreased appetite, lethargy, fever, and changes in behavior like hiding or acting aloof.
A feline URI is similar to a common cold in humans in that their caused by a viral infection. Although, unlike humans who catch a cold in the winter months, cat colds can occur year-round!
As a veterinarian, I usually see more sneezing cats in the spring and summer, which likely coincides with the “kitten season” aka when shelters are overwhelmed by pet overpopulation.
What causes feline URIs?
Upper respiratory infections in cats can be caused by:
- Feline herpesvirus (FHV-1), a virus
- Feline calicivirus (FCV), a virus
- Chlamydia spp.
- Mycoplasma spp.
- Bordetella bronchiseptica (known as “dog” kennel cough)
- And more recently in the news, SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus), albeit rare
How do cats get upper respiratory infections?
URIs are transmitted by exposure to certain bodily fluids (such as the saliva spray of fluid coming out of your cat’s sneeze or runny nose). Chances are, your cat may have caught their URI before you brought them home, as these infections can develop just a few days after exposure. Unfortunately, if you have other cats in your household, it’s likely that they’ve also been exposed and could be sneezing too.
Thankfully, URIs aren’t contagious to you, but they can be extremely contagious to other cats. That’s why I’m such an advocate of separating and quarantining a new pet in your household from other pets for at least 5-7 days to be safe.
It’s also important to know that like a human cold sore on your lip, URI viruses can “hide” in the body for years – especially if your cat has a problem with their immune system. For example, if they’re immunosuppressed from feline immunodeficiency virus or if they’re a young kitten.
This means that if your cat caught a cold a decade ago from the shelter when you adopted them, it can “recrudesce” and come back with any stress (just like a human cold sore!)
What are the clinical signs of an upper respiratory infection in cats?
The most common signs of a “cat cold” are:
- Frequent sneezing
- Nasal discharge
- Eye discharge
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty chewing food
- Drooling (usually secondary to ulcerations in the mouth (e.g., on the tongue, palate, etc.)
- Bad breath
- Increased pink coloring or redness to the tissues surrounding the eyes (e.g., conjunctivitis)
- Squinting of the eyes due to corneal ulceration
- Breathing harder
- Breathing with the mouth open
- Increased respiratory effort
- Loud breathing or snoring sounds
How are upper respiratory infections in cats diagnosed?
Most of the time, when we veterinarians diagnose a cat with a URI, it’s based on history, clinical signs, physical examination findings, underlying conditions, and response to treatment. We typically don’t run blood tests for a feline URI, as there’s no one specific or reasonably priced test for a URI.
That said, your vet may perform further tests to rule out other possible causes of your cat’s symptoms. These tests may include:
During the physical examination, the veterinarian will look for signs of upper respiratory tract inflammation, redness of the nasal passages or throat, and tumors (Neoplasia). They may also listen to your cat’s lungs with a stethoscope to check for signs of pneumonia or other respiratory complications.
This procedure involves inserting a camera into the cat’s nasal passages so the vet can closely examine the area for tumors or fungal plaques.
Your vet may carry out this test in really sick cats to rule out low blood sugar, dehydration, anemia, evidence of infection, feline leukemia/FIV status, or general health screening.
Your vet may recommend imaging to diagnose any underlying causes and determine the extent of damage in the nose. Although X-rays can help, a computerized tomography (CT) scan is preferred. This requires anesthesia and is typically available in emergency hospitals.
Your vet may take biopsies of the nasal cavity walls to check for potential causes such as inflammation, fungal infections, or cancer. The biopsy can provide crucial information to help determine the best course of treatment for your beloved pet.
Pet Pro Tip: Any responsible pet owner should seriously consider pet insurance. Properly understanding how pet insurance works and what pet insurance covers can help you make an informed decision about your pet’s health needs and plan your finances accordingly!
How are upper respiratory infections in cats treated?
Before you Google “why is my cat sneezing so much and how to stop it”, just know that there’s no “cure,” antidote, or medication for a feline URI. Treatment for a cat cold is really just tender loving care at home! Most of the time, this will go away in a week or two.
However, if your cat’s condition worsens, get to a veterinarian as soon as possible as some cats may need to be hospitalized for more intensive care.
How do you treat a sneezing cat at home?
Try a humidifier
If your cat sleeps with you, consider using a humidifier in the bedroom to help hydrate the nasal passages. This will make it easier to wipe away the nose crusts!
Bring your cat into the bathroom with you when you shower
When you go to shower, let your cat lounge on the bathroom floor and skip the ceiling fan. The humidified, warm, steamy air can help them breathe better.
Yummy canned cat food, please!
When your cat’s nose is occluded with discharge or cat boogers, your cat can’t smell food. If your cat can’t smell their food, they won’t eat. You’ll need to tempt your cat to eat something super palatable – like stinky canned food!
Also, try hand-feeding your cat, as it may help encourage them to eat. Don’t force feed; that’s a huge no-no.
If you have more than one cat, it’s important to keep your sick cat away from your healthy cat(s) since URIs are so contagious.
Clean their nose regularly
Please use a damp cloth or cotton wipe to gently remove any discharge from the nose, eyes, and mouth. Cats are obligate nose breathers. In other words, they don’t open their mouth to breathe unless they are really struggling, so keep those nostrils clean and clear!
Skip the Lysine
While it’d be nice if it helped, recent evidence hasn’t found lysine to benefit cats with URIs. Not worth pilling your cat over!
What if my cat isn’t getting better?
If your cat still isn’t showing signs of improvement, get to a veterinarian as soon as you can, as your cat may need additional medication and supportive care.
This includes subcutaneous fluids (given under the skin) to help hydrate your cat, a long-acting antibiotic injection (if there’s evidence of a secondary bacterial infection or pus from the eyes or nose), appetite stimulants (e.g., mirtazapine), or even eye medication (if corneal ulcers or conjunctivitis is present).
In rare cases, an emergency or overnight veterinary visit may be necessary for intravenous (IV) fluids, IV antibiotics, oxygen, supportive care (e.g., including nebulization, humidification, heat support), and a temporary feeding tube in severe cases.
What should I do if my cat keeps sneezing?
If your cat keeps sneezing, it’s best to take them to a veterinarian for an evaluation. Your vet can help determine the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatment, including medication, specialized diets, or further diagnostic testing.
What home remedy can I give my cat for sneezing?
Giving your cat any home remedies for sneezing without first consulting a veterinarian is not recommended. However, getting a humidifier and steamy air may help treat irritated tissues.
Will cat sneezing go away on its own?
Cat sneezing may go away on its own if it is caused by minor irritants or allergies. However, if the sneezing persists or is accompanied by other symptoms, it could be a sign of a more serious underlying condition that requires veterinary attention.
The good news is, the prognosis for a feline URI is good with supportive care. Try the home remedies above for your cat’s URI, but if they stop eating after 2-3 days, or the symptoms are getting worse – a veterinary exam is a must!
Also, remember that keeping your cat up-to-date on vaccines, indoors, and healthy is the best way to prevent a URI to begin with!