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Why is My Cat Sneezing?

White cat sneezing
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Sneezing is a normal way for the body to get rid of irritating stuff from the nose. It is a complex action, involving multiple muscles and nerves to coordinate a forceful blow of air through the nose. 

Most pets – including cats – sneeze once in a while and it’s usually nothing to worry about. But if you’ve noticed your cat achooing more than usual, you may be wondering: why is my cat sneezing?

Sometimes sneezing in cats is a cause for concern. It might occur very frequently or come with other symptoms like being really stuffed up and not eating well. Read this article to determine why your cat may be sneezing so much, and what you can do about it.

Why Do Cats Sneeze?

Cats sneeze when the nasal mucosa, or lining of the passageways inside the nose, gets irritated. This area is very sensitive, and any physical irritant like a piece of grass or mucus, allergic irritant like pollen or dust, or infection such as feline herpesvirus (a common cause of “colds” in cats) can cause a sneeze. 

This irritation triggers the inspiratory center, a bundle of nerves that stimulates muscles of the body to pull a lot of air into the lungs. Once enough air has filled the lungs, the pressure suddenly pushes open the connection from the airways to the nose, called the nasopharynx. This sudden change causes a large push of air to be forced out through the nose, and some through the mouth.

Causes of Cat Sneezing

Sick cat resting

A cat may sneeze for a variety of reasons, including:

Basic irritation. Most cats sneeze a couple or few times simply because something has irritated the inside of their nose. It is a normal reaction to expel foreign material or irritating things from the nasal passageway. Food or fluid from the esophagus (tube leading to the stomach) during stomach upset can also cause sneezing.

Rhinitis. Cats develop different kinds of rhinitis, or chronic inflammation of the nose, for unknown reasons. This is one of the most common reasons for chronic sneezing.

Dental disease. When a tooth has a severe infection, it can rupture into the nose (fistula) or cause significant swelling in the mouth that affects the nose. The roof of the mouth (the palate) and the nasal passageways are extremely close to one another and are interconnected.

Viral infection. Upper respiratory infections (aka kitty colds) are very common in cats and are almost always caused by feline herpesvirus-1 or feline calicivirus.

Allergies. Allergies cause the immune system of your cat to overreact to certain things. This overreaction leads to nasal inflammation and sneezing.

Polyps. If a cat has inflammation or an infection in the nose (or ear) for a long period of time, the body can overreact to the inflammation and creates small non-cancerous masses that extend outward from the site of inflammation.

Foreign bodies. Anything that gets lodged in the nose that shouldn’t be there will definitely cause sneezing! Little pieces of plants are common foreign bodies.

Bacterial infection. While antibiotics are frequently given to cats with sneezing and congestion, the primary cause of sneezing is rarely bacteria. If bacteria are present, this is usually because of a virus or other issue.

Fungal infection. Fungi such as Cryptococcus spp. can invade the nose, creating significant inflammation.

Cancer. Lymphoma and adenocarcinoma are the types of cancer that most commonly afflict the nasal passageways.

Congenital conditions. Cleft palate occurs in some kittens, which means there is a hole in the hard palate on the roof of the mouth, allowing food and liquids to enter the nose.

Sneezing in Cats: Other Symptoms to Watch For

There are many symptoms that commonly occur with sneezing, including:

  • Runny nose, or discharge from the nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Blood in the discharge from the nose after sneezing

Sneezing indicates that the lining of the nose is irritated and probably inflamed. When the nose is inflamed, the body naturally develops mucus (snot) that gets sneezed out. Clear, runny discharge is more common, but green or yellow mucus occurs too. The eyes and nose are connected, so if the nose is stuffy, the eyes will have a back-up of tears that cannot drain through the nose making the eyes watery. After a few days of inflammation in the nose and sneezing, a little blood is common due to the nasal passageways being irritated.

Other symptoms that can occur in sneezing cats include:

  • Being less active
  • Changes in behavior, i.e. hiding more
  • Lower appetite
  • Gagging or retching that can result in vomiting
  • Loud breathing
  • Breathing with the mouth open
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

What is Reverse Sneezing in Cats?

Reverse sneezing occurs either when the mucosa of the nose or the pharynx (the back of the throat) is irritated. Reverse sneezing is a strong and sudden spasm of the throat and windpipe and can sound very alarming as if the cat is choking (but he isn’t). 

The spasm causes the windpipe, or trachea, to narrow so inhaling air is more challenging for a brief moment. Instead of air being forced out of the nose, a very strong rush of air comes in that causes cats to pause what they are doing and stretch their neck in order to take in air. 

Since cats typically breathe through their nose, and they are usually stuffed up when reverse sneezing occurs, it creates a loud noise.

What to Do if Your Cat Is Sneezing

Veterinarian examining cat

If your cat has just sneezed a few times or sporadically, it should not cause immediate concern. Watch for changes in activity and appetite. 

Allergies and herpesvirus infections come and go, and can cause a cat to sneeze, be a little stuffed up, and have watery eyes for a couple weeks before fading away on their own. No vet visit is needed as long as your cat is otherwise acting like himself and eating well. Keep a mental note of when this episode occurs, which will be useful information to your veterinarian if it gets worse or happens repeatedly.

If your cat is less active, eating less, or is coughing or wheezing, he should go to the veterinarian right away. It does not necessarily mean your cat needs emergency care, but he needs extra support like hydration. Testing commonly includes X-rays of the chest to ensure the symptoms are only related to the upper part of the airway such as the nose and throat. On occasion, sneezing goes along with more serious conditions like pneumonia (infection in the lungs) and needs advanced treatment.

If your cat is very stuffed up, place him in a small bathroom and turn the shower on hot. Allow your cat to sit in a steamy bathroom for 15 to 20 minutes 2 or 3 times per day – the steam can help with congestion and get rid of some mucus. If the air in your home is pretty dry, consider a humidifier in whichever room your cat spends most of his time. Gently wipe your cat’s face with a damp cloth if there is a lot of discharge. Offer multiple food options, both dry and canned food, including different brands, textures, and flavors if your cat is not eating well. You can even try plain cooked meat like tuna from a can or plain chicken.