Nasal Discharge in Cats

Key Takeaways

Feline nasal discharge is comparable to sneezing and coughing- a common bodily reaction to irritants and pathogens. 

• Discharge can vary in appearance depending on the cause, and warrants veterinary intervention when the cause is unknown or if it has been happening for some time

• Alone, nasal discharge is not indicative of a medical emergency

• Nasal discharge has a wide variety of potential causes, including infection, inflammation, mites, tumors, or foreign objects trapped in the nasal passage

• Viral upper respiratory tract infections are one of the most common reasons for nasal discharge in cats

• Diagnostics include physical examination, bloodwork, diagnostic imaging, and examination of the discharge

• Treatments can be supportive, such as with nasal drops or running a warm-air vaporizer

• Other treatments target the underlying cause of the discharge, and include antivirals, antibiotics, steroids, antifungals, antihistamines, and surgery

A Closer Look: What is Nasal Discharge in Cats?

Nasal discharge is common and unlikely to be an emergency, especially after only a single finding.  Nasal discharge warrants veterinary attention when the cause of the discharge isn’t known. A foreign object caught in a cat’s nasal passage causes significant discomfort, for example, and timely intervention is beneficial.  

If nasal discharge presents alongside other concerning symptoms, or persists for longer than expected, veterinary assistance is also required.

Possible Causes

Viral upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are the most common reason for a cat to have nasal discharge. 

Other causes include

• Herpesvirus • Calicivirus • Bacterial and fungal infections

• Inhaled foreign object or irritant (smoke, pollen)

• Rhinitis (nasal passage inflammation), including allergic rhinitis (rare)

• Parasites (nasal mites, cutereba) • Cleft palate in neonates

• Tumors/neoplasia • Dental abscess • Injury

• Immune-mediated diseases

Risk Factors

The color and character of nasal discharge varies, from clear and watery to thick and mucousy to bloody, depending on the underlying cause. Color and consistency of discharge is mostly dependent on how much moisture there is, and what kind of cells are present. The color does not indicate a bacterial or viral infection.

The causes of nasal discharge are widely varied, and further depend on the age and lifestyle. Nasal discharge in a neonatal kitten, for example, is likely to be due to a cleft palate, whereas older cats are more susceptible to tumors or dental abscess. Outdoor cats and unvaccinated cats are more likely to have upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs).

Testing and Diagnosis

A thorough history is necessary to determine whether the discharge is unilateral (coming from one nostril) or bilateral (coming from both), which helps to narrow down the diagnosis.

Diagnostics for nasal discharge include:

• Physical examination • Blood tests • Diagnostic imaging

• Microscopic analysis of discharge • Nasal cytology

• Rhinoscopy • Biopsy

The next steps vary depending on the diagnosis, including non-specific supportive therapies, or treatments targeting the underlying cause where applicable.

Supportive therapies include: 

• Nasal drops

• Nebulization

• Therapeutic trials with antibiotics 

• Fluid therapy

• Running a warm air vaporizer or spending time in a hot and steamy bathroom to combat congestion

Targeted treatments include:

• Dental work • Allergy management • Steroids

• Foreign object removal • Surgery • Chemo/radiation

• Palliative care • Antifungals • Oral antihistamines

• Antiviral therapy

Similar symptoms

Nasal discharge can be confused for something else on the face or nose. While discharge can be bloody, it is distinct from a nosebleed.

Associated Symptoms

Anything that makes the eyes water excessively leads to increased nasal secretions. 

Other symptoms commonly observed alongside nasal discharge include:

Sneezing

Reverse sneezing

• Nasal congestion

Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)

• Visible swelling/asymmetry of the muzzle

• Dental tartar and decay

• Pawing at the nose/muzzle

• Runny/inflamed eyes

• Panting

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