Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Cats

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Overview of Feline Sneezing and Nasal Discharge

Sneezing is a reflex of the upper airways, activated to explosively discharge irritating material from the nasal cavity. In cats, it is usually caused by the irritation of sensitive nerve endings in the mucous membrane that lines the nose. Nasal discharge is another sign of nasal disease or irritation.

Although normal cats may occasionally sneeze or have nasal discharge (similar to human beings), severe, chronic or recurrent bouts of sneezing or nasal discharge suggest a more serious problem. Sneezing and nasal discharge often occur together.

Nasal discharge can be categorized by character: serous (clear), mucoid (cloudy), blood tinged, bloody (epistaxis) or a combination of these. It is also categorized by location: unilateral (one nostril vs. bilateral (both nostrils); chronicity (acute vs. chronic); and associated signs of disease. For example, nasal bleeding could suggest injury, a tumor, bleeding disorder or a tick-borne infection. 

Sneezing and nasal discharge can be caused by dozens of conditions. Some causes are brief and self-limiting such as acute viral infections. Other problems are recurrent such as seasonal allergies. Still others – such as tumors or lodged nasal foreign bodies – are relentless and chronic unless the problem can be resolved. 

Nasal disease can affect cats of any age. Younger cats are more likely to be affected by communicable respiratory infections (viruses in most cases) or birth defects (such as cleft palate, ciliary dyskinesis, or imperforate posterior choanae). Older cats with sneezing/nasal discharge are more likely to have chronic dental disease or tumors. Outdoor cats are more prone to inhalation of foreign bodies, such as fox tails plant awns, that can lead to acute and then chronic upper airway problems. Some fungal infections are more common in cats (e.g. cryptococcus).

What to Watch For

  • Sneezing and nasal discharge, which are the hallmark symptoms of nasal and sinus disease

    Other signs may include:

  • Rubbing the nose or pawing at the face
  • Gagging
  • Excessive swallowing (from post-nasal drip)
  • Bleeding from one or both nostrils
  • A foul smell from the mouth or nose
  • Pain
  • Swelling over the bridge of the nose
  • Noisy breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy (lack of energy)
  • Diagnosis of Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Cats

    Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests to determine what is causing the sneezing or nasal discharge and to direct subsequent treatment.

    There are several potential diagnostic tests. Recommendations will depend upon the likelihood of the potential diagnosis. The tests may include:

  • Physical examination and history including: examination for swellings; type of nasal discharge, airflow through the nostrils; ability of your pet to breath with the mouth closed; size and shape of lymph nodes; oral (mouth) cavity examination; and assessment of the eyes. Thorough examination of the upper airways is difficult without anesthesia. Acute causes of nasal discharge or sneezing – especially when caused by a respiratory viral infection – may be diagnosed from the history and clinical circumstances.
  • General blood screening rarely identifies the cause of the nasal discharge. However, blood tests are recommended to look for secondary disease and concurrent problems and to minimize anesthetic risk.
  • A platelet count and coagulation screen to assess for possible causes of bleeding.
  • A nasal swab and microscope examination of the cells (cytology).
  • Specialized blood tests for fungus infections.
  • Examination of the nasal cavity and posterior choanae (back of the nose) using endoscopes.
  • Flushing and cytology of the nasal cavities.
  • Skull X-rays.
  • Computerized tomography (CT).
  • Biopsy of the nasal tissue (mucosa).
  • Treatment of Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Cats

    Treatment depends on the cause of the nasal discharge or sneezing. There is no “general” treatment for these symptoms.

    Home Care

    Recommendations for home care will depend upon the underlying cause of the problem.

    Monitor your cat for any abnormalities so that you can discuss them with your veterinarian. If general treatments do not clear up the symptoms, a diagnosis must be sought using appropriate tests.

    Administer all treatments as recommended by your veterinarian. You may clean discharges from the nose. Many cats eat based on their sense of smell. Often if your cat cannot smell the food, he will not eat it. You can warm food in the microwave or feed a canned food that may be smellier to encourage your cat to eat.

    Preventative Care

    Vaccinate your cats against upper respiratory infections.

    In-depth Information on Sneezing and Nasal Discharge in Cats

    The following list emphasizes the most important causes of nasal discharge.

  • Infectious diseases – viral and bacterial: Rickettsial infections (also lead to bleeding disorders), bacterial infections (usually secondary to something else)
  • Infectious diseases – fungal diseases (mycotic infections) – Aspergillus, Penicillium, Rhinosporidium, Sporothrix
  • Nasal mites (tiny insects)
  • Dental disease with infection of the tooth roots
  • Inflammatory diseases of the nasal cavity such as
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