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
Other signs may include:
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:
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.
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.
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.
- 1) lymphocytic plasmacytic rhinitis – an “immune” or nonspecific response of the nasal mucosa (lining cells) to an injury or stimulation
- 2) idiopathic (no known cause) including “allergic” rhinitis
Nasal discharge may not be obvious, due to the tendency of cats to lick secretions from their noses. Discharge is more noticeable as the volume increases, character of discharge changes, other physical abnormalities occur or secretions accumulate on the nostril, over surrounding hair or nasopharynx (causing retching or reversed sneezing).
Nasal discharge comes from several sources, including mucous cells and glands in the nose. Secretions usually move caudally (away from the nostril) by the mucociliary apparatus (small hair-like projections) and when they reach the nasopharynx (where the nasal cavity meets the throat) they are swallowed. When secretions accumulate to the exterior, it suggests that there is an increased production of secretions or an obstruction to drainage.
Veterinarians know that certain types of discharges are more likely with certain diseases, but there is overlap. Nasal discharge is not specific for any one problem but can actually be related to a number of different diseases or disorders.
Unfortunately, in older cats, nasal neoplasia (cancer) is a very common cause of recurrent and progressive (becomes more severe with time) nasal discharge.
Diagnostic tests used to determine the cause of nasal discharge will be considered by your veterinarian based on findings from the physical examination, prior tests results, or lack of response to empiric therapy. Most tests for evaluation of nasal discharge are best accomplished with sedation or general anesthesia. The evaluation for nasal discharge may include an oral examination, nasal examination, cytology (examination of cells), biopsy, culture, radiography or computerized tomography.
Depending on the situation, your veterinarian might recommend additional diagnostic tests to exclude or diagnose other conditions and to provide optimal medical care for your pet. Some examples include: