Is Your Cat Sneezing? 8 Causes and Treatments

July 26, 2021


July 26, 2021

When an irritant invades your cat’s nasal passages, sneezing is their automatic response. This expulsion of air through their nose and mouth helps clear the foreign element. If the irritant is dust or hair, you have no need for concern. Other elements that can irritate your cat’s nasal passages and result in sneezing are more worrisome.

The eight most common culprits include:

  • Feline herpes virus
  • Feline calicivirus
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica
  • Nasal cryptococcus
  • Dental disease
  • Nasal tumor
  • Inhaled irritants

#1: Feline herpes virus

Also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), this viral infection most commonly affects kittens and unvaccinated cats. The majority, 97 percent, of cats are exposed to FVR in their lifetime, and 80 percent of affected cats carry a lifelong infection.

  • Transmission — FVR is spread through direct contact with an infected cat’s saliva, tears, or nasal secretions. Your cat can also be infected if they inhale sneeze droplets from an infected cat or contact contaminated objects, such as food or water bowls.
  • Clinical signs — Signs include fever, clear or mucoid discharge from the eyes or nose, coughing, sneezing, ulcers in the mouth, conjunctivitis, and corneal ulcers.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis can be made by testing ocular or oral swabs for the virus.
  • Treatment — Supportive care is critical for affected cats and, in severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary, to provide intravenous fluids and nutritional supplementation. Systemic antiviral therapies can help manage acute infections. Topical ocular antiviral therapies can help cats with eye problems. Antibiotics may be needed to control secondary bacterial infections. Isolating infected cats is important to prevent viral spread.
  • PreventionVaccinating your cat against this pervasive disease is the best way to protect your pet. The vaccine is not 100 percent effective, but greatly reduces the severity of clinical disease and viral shedding.

#2: Feline calicivirus

Feline calicivirus (FCV) mutates readily, producing several strains that can circulate in domestic and wild cat populations. Cats housed in crowded populations, such as shelters, pet stores, and catteries, are at highest risk.

  • Transmission — FCV spreads through contact with an infected cat’s saliva, tears, or nasal secretions, or by inhaling sneeze droplets. FCV can live on contaminated objects for up to a month, providing another infection route.
  • Clinical signs — Signs, including fever, sneezing, nasal congestion, ocular discharge, ulcers in the mouth, lethargy, and sometimes mild lameness, appear 2 to 14 days after infection.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis can be made by testing ocular or nasal swabs for the virus.
  • Treatment — Treatment for FCV relies on supportive care, since antiviral medications are not effective against FCV. Antibiotics are usually needed to help control secondary bacterial infections, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can help reduce fever and manage mouth pain. Severely affected cats may need hospitalization for intravenous fluids and nutritional support. Infected cats should be isolated to prevent spread.
  • Prevention — Vaccinating your cat does not protect them from FCV entirely, but the vaccine can greatly reduce infection severity.

#3: Feline immunodeficiency virus

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a viral disease that attacks your cat’s immune system, making them vulnerable to normally harmless pathogens.

  • Transmission — Transmission usually occurs when an infected cat bites your cat. Casual contact, such as sharing water bowls or mutual grooming, does not spread the virus effectively.
  • Clinical signs — FIV has three phases of infection.
  • Acute phase — One to three months after infection, the virus replicates in the lymph nodes, resulting in temporary lymph node enlargement. Other signs exhibited during this phase include fever, lethargy, and decreased appetite.
  • Asymptomatic phase — Lasting for months to years, this phase is characterized by the virus replicating slowly in the immune system’s cells. No outward illness signs are exhibited, but blood work abnormalities may be present. Some cats remain in this stage and never progress to more severe disease.
  • Progressive phase — As the virus spreads, your cat will become severely immuno-compromised. They will be susceptible to, and exhibit, signs indicating respiratory tract, skin, eyes, and urinary tract infections.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis is made by a blood test, and the earlier the diagnosis, the better your cat’s prognosis.
  • Treatment — No cure is available for FIV. However, if your cat is diagnosed in the early stages, you can minimize their exposure to circumstances that could result in secondary infections. Treatment is focused on supportive care and therapy for secondary infections.
  • Prevention —Keeping your cat indoors, and testing new cats for FIV, will help keep your pet from getting sick.

#4: Bordetella bronchiseptica

B. bronchiseptica is a bacterial disease that most commonly affects cats housed in crowded populations.

  • Transmission — Infection is spread by inhaling sneeze droplets or contacting an infected cat’s saliva, tears, or nasal secretions. Contaminated objects can also serve to spread the disease.
  • Clinical signs — Signs include fever, sneezing, coughing, and nasal and ocular discharge.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis can be made by testing nasal or throat swabs for the bacteria.
  • TreatmentB. bronchiseptica responds well to antibiotic treatment. In severe cases, supportive care may be needed. Affected cats should be isolated to prevent spread.
  • Prevention — A vaccination is available, but is not considered a core vaccine. Most household cats are not at high risk for B. bronchiseptica.

#5: Nasal cryptococcosis

While fungal infections rarely cause disease in cats, cryptococcosis is the most common systemic feline fungal disease. Cats are much more likely to be affected by cryptococcosis than other domestic animals, and cats of all ages are susceptible.

  • Transmission — Infection occurs when your cat inhales the infectious spores of Cryptococcus neoformans or Cryptococcus gattii, which can be found in bird droppings or decaying vegetation.
  • Clinical signs — Signs include nasal discharge, sneezing, facial swelling, nasal wounds, and nasal polyps.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis can be made by testing your cat’s blood or urine.
  • Treatment — Treatment involves long-term antifungal therapy, typically for several months. Any nasal polyps will need surgical removal. Treatment should be continued for at least two months past the resolution of clinical signs. Prognosis is usually good if treatment is started early.
  • Prevention — Keeping cats indoors can help decrease their exposure to the infectious spores.

#6: Dental disease

The roots of your cat’s upper teeth are in close proximity to their nasal passages. When infection or severe inflammation affects these teeth, the barrier between the tooth socket and the nasal passage can break down, and result in food material or saliva entering your cat’s nose, triggering the sneeze reflex. Additionally, bacteria from the infected tooth can infect the nasal passages, resulting in inflammation and sneezing.

  • Clinical signs — If your pet has an infected tooth, signs may include facial swelling, sneezing, nasal discharge, and inability to eat.
  • Diagnosis — A veterinary professional will need to perform an oral examination to check for dental disease.
  • Treatment — An infected tooth will need extraction, and your cat may need systemic antibiotics. The sneezing should stop once the infection is resolved, and the barrier between the nasal passage and mouth is restored.
  • Prevention — Regular dental care, including daily toothbrushing and routine professional dental cleanings, is the best way to prevent dental disease that can lead to respiratory problems.

#7: Nasal tumors

The majority of nasal tumors in cats are malignant. They do not tend to spread to other parts of the body, but are locally invasive. The most common culprits are squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), lymphoma, and intranasal carcinoma.

  • Clinical signs — Nasal tumor signs include sneezing, snoring, crusting on the nose, nosebleeds, ocular discharge, and facial deformity.
  • Diagnosis — Diagnosis is made by performing a rhinoscopy to visualize the tumor, and lesion biopsy.
  • Treatment — If the tumor is small enough, surgical removal may be attempted. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy are usually employed to address nasal tumors. Unfortunately, the prognosis for cats with a nasal tumor is poor. After diagnosis, most cats only survive 6 to 18 months.

#8: Inhaled irritants

Cats do not typically suffer from respiratory issues when they are exposed to allergens—rather,  allergies in cats usually manifest as skin problems. Cats can be sensitive to irritants such as cigarette smoke, perfume, scented litter, cleaning agents, and candles. If your cat is sneezing because of an irritant, they will have no other signs, such as lethargy or decreased appetite, and removing the irritating agent should be curative.

An occasional sneeze is likely nothing to worry about, but if your cat is sneezing frequently or showing other signs, several conditions could be the cause. A veterinary examination is the best place to start to determine why your cat is sneezing.


Cornell Feline Health Center.

International Cat Care. August 2018.

Cornell Feline Health Center.

PetMD. January 2021.

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Disclaimer: Our content is for informational purposes only — it’s not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.