Sneezing in Cats

Key Takeaways

Sneezing is the body’s natural way of responding to irritants and inflammation by expelling air out the nose.

• Adaptive and healthy sneezing lasts only a few moments

• Once the sneezing is continuous, chronic, or accompanied by other symptoms like runny nose, lethargy, or difficulty eating, veterinary attention is necessary to gain a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan

• Diseases associated with sneezing include bacterial, viral, and fungal infections

• Foreign objects, dental disease, inflammatory diseases, and cancer also commonly cause sneezing

• Specific diagnosis may be suggested by physical examination and history 

• Bloodwork, diagnostic imaging, and rhinoscopy may be necessary to determine the root cause of sneezing

• Treatment and prognosis depend on the underlying cause

A Closer Look: What is Sneezing in Cats?

A couple of sneezes now and then is nothing to worry about. Neither is the brief production of mucus from the nose, eyes, or mouth in response to exposure to an irritant, even when it appears intense.

A sudden onset of severe sneezing accompanied by discomfort, persistent pawing at the face/nose, increased mucus discharge, and mouth breathing are all signs of a lodged object. If the lodged object doesn’t clear on its own within 24 hours, vet assistance is needed. The more distressed the cat appears, the more cause for concern. 

Severe, intense episodes of sneezing with no relief is cause for concern and likely requires emergency medical treatment. Persistent sneezing often  indicates a viral infection, especially when accompanied by these other symptoms: 

• Coughing or gagging • Discharge from the eyes or nose • Lethargy • Loss of appetite

Vaccinations play an important role in preventing upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) and minimizing the severity of symptoms when infections occur. Note: human cold medications often include ingredients that are toxic to cats and should never be given without consulting a veterinarian

Sneezing can also be a sign of cancer. Depending on the size of the tumor(s), cats may exhibit the same symptoms of an object lodged in the nose. Nasal lymphoma and squamous cell carcinoma are both common types of cancer for cats. Other symptoms associated with nasal cancer include: 

• Lumps/bumps around the face • Lethargy • Loss of appetite

• Scabbing on the nose that does not go away and gets bigger

Possible Causes

Common causes of sneezing include: 

• Irritants like dust or aerosols • Fungal infections, like aspergillosis • Dental disease • Allergies

• Viral infections, especially herpesvirus and calicivirus • Abnormal tissue growth (nasal polyps)

• Bacterial infections, often secondary to viral infections. Chlamydiosis is a very common example.

• Rhinitis - chronic inflammation of the nose exclusive of infectious agents

• Cancer (carcinoma, lymphoma, sarcoma)

Stress levels can affect the frequency and severity of symptoms, no matter the underlying cause.

Risk Factors

Infrequent, quick bursts of sneezing accompanied by some mucous discharge is natural and nothing to worry about. Chronic sneezing, sneezing accompanied by other symptoms like coughing, runny eyes, appetite loss, sores on the skin over the muzzle, or facial deformity, and sneezing that persists for more than 48 hours likely indicates a more serious underlying medical condition. 

Cats with lighter pigmented skin and more exposure to UV light are more at risk for developing certain cancers of the face. Catching the cancer as early as possible provides the best opportunity for remission and recovery.

Testing and Diagnosis

Cats experiencing severe or chronic sneezing need veterinary attention to determine the underlying cause. In some cases, the cat’s history and physical examination are sufficient to suggest a clinical diagnosis. More challenging cases are put through additional diagnostic testing, including: 

• Blood work • X-rays • Rhinoscopy • Nasal lavage • Biopsy • Advanced diagnostic imaging (CT or MRI)

Treatment varies widely, depending on the underlying cause. Sneezing may resolve on its own once the irritant is flushed out. Mild viral upper respiratory tract infections are often self-limiting and resolve in 7 - 14 days without treatment.  Common treatments for other underlying causes of sneezing may include: 

• Antibiotics • Antifungals • Anti-inflammatories • Dental procedures • Chemotherapy

• Surgery to remove a foreign object or tumor

Similar symptoms

Reverse sneezing is an action that can be confused with typical sneezing. A reverse sneeze is like a “backwards” sneeze, where the animal inhales in an effort to relieve irritation in the upper airways instead of exhaling.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms commonly observed with sneezing include:

• Nasal discharge • Nasal congestion • Eye discharge • Elevated third eyelids • Appetite loss

• Red tissue around the eyes • Lethargy • Wheezing • Coughing • Panting • Pawing at the face

• Distortion or asymmetry of the face

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