Why Do Cats Sneeze: 11 Causes, Home Care and Vet Q&A

Occasional cat sneeze is a natural and intuitive pressure release or response for irritants such as smells, dust, smoke, etc. 

But when the cat keeps sneezing and starts showing other symptoms, such as discharge and lethargy, it is time to take it to a vet.

We will, as always, list potential reasons to help you prepare for a vet visit and answer your question: Why do cats sneeze? 

You should know that diagnosing sneezing in cats is more challenging. Symptoms are similar in tumors and superficial infections, so your vet may need to run tests to understand the causes better. 

Why Do Cats Sneeze

Why Do Cats Sneeze

In cats, sneezing is a reflex and response to irritation or stimulation of the nasal passages. When the delicate tissues inside a cat’s nose become irritated or inflamed due to infection or inflammation, several mechanisms come into play, leading to sneezing. 

Here’s how it happens:

Irritation of Nasal Tissues: When foreign particles, such as dust, allergens, or infectious agents like viruses or bacteria, come into contact with the sensitive nasal tissues of a cat, they cause irritation.

Inflammatory Response: The body’s natural response to this irritation is to trigger an inflammatory response. Inflammation is a protective mechanism that helps the body fight off potential threats. In the case of the nose, this response includes increased blood flow and the release of chemicals to combat the irritants.

Nasal Congestion: Due to inflammation, the blood vessels in the nasal passages become dilated, causing the nasal tissues to swell. This swelling can partially or completely block the airway in the nose, making it difficult for the cat to breathe normally.

Mucus Production: In response to the irritation and inflammation, the nasal passages may produce excess mucus. This mucus is produced to trap and remove the irritants, but it can also contribute to nasal congestion.

Sneezing Reflex: When the nasal passages are sufficiently irritated or blocked, the cat’s body triggers the sneezing reflex. Sneezing is a forceful expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. The rapid exhalation of air helps dislodge and expel the irritants and mucus, clearing the nasal passages.

Relief: Sneezing serves as a way for the cat to relieve the discomfort caused by the irritation or inflammation. It’s a protective mechanism designed to protect the respiratory system from potential threats.

Reasons for Cat Sneezing

Lats explore the common causes of cat sneezing, additional symptoms, and treatment options.

1. Upper Respiratory Infections URI’s [common cold]

cat has common cold

Upper respiratory infections are caused by:

  • Viral infections: (discharge is usually clear)
  • Bacterial infections (usually colored mucus and discharge) 

The most common viruses are feline herpesvirus (FHV-1) and feline calicivirus (FCV). Bacterial infections, such as those caused by Bordetella or Chlamydia, can also contribute to URIs.

How to recognize URI in cats at home:

  • You may notice green/ish discharge from the eyes and/or nose
  • Occasional or frequent sneezing 
  • coughing, 
  • congestion, 
  • Loss of appetite
  • lethargy
  • and sometimes, your cat may have a fever.

What your vet does in this case:
A vet will examine the cat, and if there are some lung changes, they will check for Pneumonia via X-rays and bloodwork – especially if the cat is lethargic.

Cats with compromised immune systems, such as kittens, senior cats, or those with other underlying health issues, are at higher risk of developing complications.

The treatment includes antibiotics. 

Upper respiratory infections can become more chronic or long-term.  If so, a PCR test helps diagnose what’s causing the long-term respiratory infection.

URI’s are highly contagious and can spread through direct contact with an infected cat or by sharing items like food bowls or bedding. It can also be transmitted through sneezing or coughing.

Prevention: Vaccination is an effective way to prevent some viral URIs, particularly feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus. Keeping your cat indoors and minimizing exposure to infected cats can reduce the risk.

If you have multiple cats, isolate an infected cat to prevent the spread of the infection to other household pets.

Recovery: Most cats recover from URIs within a few weeks with medical treatment. However, some viral infections, like feline herpesvirus, can become chronic and may require ongoing management.

2. Herpes (FHV-1)

Feline herpesvirus, or feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), is a common and highly contagious viral infection in cats. It belongs to the family Herpesviridae and primarily targets the upper respiratory system of felines. 

Here’s how FHV-1 can lead to sneezing and other related symptoms:

Transmission: FHV-1 is primarily spread through contact with infected cats, shared items such as food bowls, bedding, or even human hands if they contact the virus.

Initial Infection: Once a cat is exposed to FHV-1, the virus can enter the body through the nose, mouth, or eyes. It then begins to replicate and spread, primarily targeting the cells of the nasal passages, throat, and eyes.

Nasal Inflammation: FHV-1 causes inflammation of the nasal tissues. This inflammation results in nasal congestion and irritation, leading to sneezing as the cat attempts to clear its nasal passages.

Nasal Discharge: The inflammatory response triggered by FHV-1 also produces watery or mucous nasal discharge. Sneezing helps expel this discharge.

Other Respiratory Symptoms: Sneezing is just one of the respiratory symptoms associated with FHV-1. 

Cats infected with the virus may also exhibit: 

  • coughing, 
  • nasal discharge, 
  • and ocular (eye) discharge symptoms. 
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye) is a common accompanying symptom.

Stress Reactivation: FHV-1 can remain dormant in a cat’s system, especially during periods of low stress. However, factors like stress, illness, or other immune system challenges can lead to the reactivation of the virus. When this happens, a cat may experience a resurgence of symptoms, including sneezing.

Chronic Infection: In some cases, FHV-1 can establish a chronic infection, leading to recurrent sneezing and other respiratory issues. Cats with chronic FHV-1 may experience flare-ups of symptoms throughout their lives.

While FHV-1 can cause sneezing and respiratory symptoms, it can also have more severe consequences, particularly in kittens and cats with compromised immune systems. These complications may include corneal ulcers (eye sores), pneumonia, and systemic illness.

A veterinarian can diagnose the infection, provide supportive care, and recommend antiviral medications if necessary. 

3. Ocular (Eye) Infections

While it may not be immediately intuitive, there is a connection between eye infections and sneezing in felines.

The eyes and the nasal passages in cats are closely connected anatomically. This connection is known as the nasolacrimal duct. Tears produced by the eyes naturally drain through this duct and into the back of the throat.

When a cat develops an ocular infection, whether viral, bacterial, or due to other causes, the eye becomes inflamed, and irritated, and may produce discharge. This discharge can be watery, mucous-like, or even purulent (pus-filled), depending on the type and severity of the infection.

Inflammation and Irritation: The inflammation and irritation in the eye can trigger a reflex response that aims to clear the irritation. This reflex can involve not only the eye but also the nasal passages.

Sneezing Reflex: The irritation from the infected eye can lead to sneezing. When the cat experiences discomfort in the eye, it may instinctively try to clear the irritation by sneezing forcefully. This action helps expel the irritants from the eye and any excess tears or discharge that may have drained into the nasal passages.

Clearing the Nasal Passages: Sneezing helps clear the nasal passages and maintain respiratory health. When the nasolacrimal duct connects the eyes to the throat, any excess tears or discharge from the infected eye can enter the nasal passages. Sneezing becomes a mechanism to remove these substances, providing relief to the cat.

Secondary Infection: An ocular infection can sometimes lead to secondary upper respiratory issues. For example, suppose the eye infection is caused by a virus like feline herpesvirus (FHV-1), which also affects the respiratory system. In that case, the virus can spread from the eye to the nasal passages, exacerbating respiratory symptoms like sneezing.

Treatment: Depending on the cause of the eye infection, treatment may involve topical or systemic antibiotics, antiviral medications, and supportive care.

4. Sinusitis

Sinusitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the sinuses, which are air-filled cavities located within the bones of the skull. In cats, just as in humans, this inflammation can lead to a range of symptoms, including sneezing. Here’s how it happens:

Sinus Inflammation: Sinusitis occurs when the mucous membranes lining the sinuses become inflamed. This inflammation can result from viral or bacterial infections, allergies, or other irritants.

In addition to sneezing, cats with sinusitis may exhibit other symptoms, such as: 

  • nasal discharge (which can be clear, mucous-like, or purulent), 
  • coughing, 
  • difficulty breathing, 
  • pawing at the face due to discomfort

Underlying Causes: 

  • Allergies, 
  • viral infections (including feline herpesvirus), 
  • bacterial infections, 
  • fungal infections, 
  • foreign objects lodged in the nasal passages are among the potential causes.

Diagnosis and Treatment: To diagnose sinusitis and identify the cause, a veterinarian may perform a thorough physical examination, take nasal swabs or X-rays, and run blood tests. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause and may involve antibiotics, antifungal medications, decongestants, and supportive care.

Chronic Sinusitis: In some cases, sinusitis can become chronic, meaning it persists or recurs over an extended period. Chronic sinusitis may require long-term management and ongoing care to alleviate symptoms and reduce the frequency of flare-ups.

5. Dental Root Abscess and Dental issues

The oral cavity and the nasal passages in cats are interconnected. The back of the mouth and the nasal passages share a common space, separated by the soft palate. This proximity allows issues in the mouth to affect the nasal passages.

Dental Root Abscess: A dental root abscess occurs when there is an infection and pus buildup at the root of a tooth. This can happen due to dental decay, periodontal disease, or trauma to the tooth.

If a dental root abscess goes untreated, the infection can spread beyond the tooth and into the surrounding tissues. This can include the maxillary bone close to the nasal passages.

In addition to sneezing, cats with dental root abscesses or other dental issues may also exhibit symptoms such as: 

  • bad breath, 
  • drooling, 
  • reluctance to eat, 
  • pawing at the mouth, 
  • and even changes in behavior due to discomfort.

Treating dental root abscesses and other dental problems typically involves a combination of dental care, including tooth extraction if necessary, and antibiotics to address the infection. Pain management may also be part of the treatment plan.

Prevention Regular dental care, including professional cleanings and at-home dental hygiene, can help prevent dental issues in cats. Early detection and treatment are key to preventing complications affecting the mouth and the respiratory system.

Think of introducing cat toothpaste into your daily routine to prevent dental and other health issues in your cat. 

6. Cancer (nasal)

Cancerous growths or tumors can develop in various parts of a cat’s body, including the nasal passages and surrounding areas. These tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

A tumor within the nasal passages or nearby structures can physically obstruct or irritate these sensitive areas.

As the tumor grows, it may irritate and inflame the nasal tissues. This irritation can trigger the sneezing reflex as the cat’s body attempts to clear the nasal passages.

In addition to sneezing, a tumor can cause nasal discharge. The discharge may be clear or bloody, depending on the type of tumor and the extent of tissue damage.

Other Symptoms

  • difficulty breathing, 
  • noisy breathing (stridor), 
  • changes in voice or meowing, 
  • facial swelling,
  • even loss of appetite.

Secondary Infections: Nasal tumors can weaken the immune system’s response in the affected area, making it more susceptible to secondary infections. These infections can further exacerbate sneezing and other respiratory symptoms.

To diagnose a tumor, particularly a nasal tumor, a veterinarian may perform various diagnostic tests, including physical examinations, imaging studies like X-rays or CT scans, and possibly biopsy for a definitive diagnosis.

The cancer treatment in cats depends on the type of tumor, its location, and the cat’s overall health. Treatment options may include surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or palliative care to manage symptoms and improve the cat’s quality of life.

The prognosis for cats with cancer varies widely depending on the type and stage of cancer and the timing of diagnosis and treatment. Some tumors may respond well to treatment, while others may have a more guarded prognosis.

7. Parasites

Parasitic infections in cats can affect the respiratory system, leading to symptoms like sneezing. 

Here are some parasites that can cause sneezing in cats and how they do so:

1. Lungworms (Aelurostrongylus abstrusus)

 Cats can become infected with lungworms by ingesting larvae from contaminated environments or consuming prey animals infected with the parasite.

Lungworms primarily reside in the airways and lungs of cats. As they mature and reproduce, they can cause inflammation and irritation in the respiratory tract, leading to symptoms such as coughing and sneezing.

 In addition to sneezing, cats with lungworm infections may exhibit: 

  • coughing, 
  • labored breathing, 
  • and in severe cases, weight loss and lethargy.

2. Nasal Mites (Pneumonyssoides caninum)

Nasal mites are transmitted between cats through close contact. They reside within the nasal passages.

Nasal mites directly irritate the nasal lining, causing inflammation and discomfort. This irritation can lead to frequent sneezing as the cat tries to clear its nasal passages.

Alongside sneezing, cats with nasal mite infestations may have: 

  • nasal discharge, 
  • nosebleeds,  
  • congestion.

3. Toxoplasma gondii

Cats can become infected with Toxoplasma gondii by ingesting infected prey animals or exposure to contaminated feces.

While Toxoplasma gondii primarily affects the digestive system, it can lead to systemic illness. In some cases, the infection can cause respiratory symptoms, including sneezing.

Other Symptoms: Sneezing may be accompanied by a range of non-specific symptoms, such as: 

  • fever, 
  • lethargy, 
  • and decreased appetite.

Various parasites can cause sneezing in cats by directly irritating the respiratory tract, introducing allergens into the nasal passages, or causing systemic illness with respiratory symptoms.

8. Foreign Objects and Allergens

Cats are naturally curious creatures and explore their surroundings with their noses. When a foreign object, such as a small piece of dust, grass, or a particle from household items, is inhaled through the nose, it irritates sensitive nasal passages. 

This irritation can trigger the sneezing reflex as the cat’s body attempts to expel the foreign material.

Larger foreign objects lodged in the nasal passages can cause persistent discomfort. The cat may sneeze to dislodge the object and relieve the irritation.

Allergens: Foreign substances like pollen, dust mites, or allergens from cleaning products can also irritate a cat’s nasal passages, leading to sneezing as the cat’s body tries to remove these irritants.

Common Foreign Objects in Cats:

Grass and Plant Material: Cats chew on grass and occasionally ingest small bits of plant material. These can become lodged in the nasal passages and lead to sneezing.

Dust and Particles: Fine dust particles, such as those found in dusty environments or during home renovations, can be inhaled by cats and cause sneezing.

Pollen: Cats that spend time outdoors may inhale pollen, particularly during allergy seasons, which can lead to sneezing and other allergy-related symptoms.

Insects: Insects, such as flies or gnats, can be inhaled or accidentally enter the nasal passages while a cat is chasing or playing with them.

Foxtails: Foxtails are sharp, barbed grass seed heads that can easily become lodged in a cat’s nasal passages if they come into contact with them while exploring outdoors.

Household Items: Small particles from household items like dust, fabric fibers, or insulation material can be inhaled by indoor cats, leading to sneezing.

Foreign Bodies: Occasionally, cats may accidentally inhale small foreign objects like bits of plastic, paper, or even food particles, which can cause irritation and sneezing.

Allergens: Cats can be sensitive to allergens like dust mites, mold spores, or certain cleaning products, and exposure to these substances can result in sneezing.

9. Other Irritants

cat sneezing

Smoke and Strong Odors

   – Cigarette Smoke: Inhaling cigarette smoke, whether firsthand or secondhand, can irritate a cat’s respiratory system, causing sneezing.

Strong Odors: Strong odors from cleaning agents, perfumes, or cooking can also trigger sneezing if they are particularly pungent or irritating.

Chemical Irritants

   – Household Chemicals: Cleaning products, solvents, or paints containing strong chemicals can release fumes that irritate a cat’s nasal passages if inhaled.

   – Pesticides: If not used or stored properly, certain pesticides can release airborne particles that may lead to sneezing and respiratory discomfort in cats.

Fireplace or Stove Smoke: Smoke from fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, or candles can contain fine particles that, when inhaled, can irritate a cat’s respiratory system.

Fragrances and Perfumes

Cats can be sensitive to strong fragrances, such as those found in perfumes, air fresheners, or scented candles. These scents may trigger sneezing. Essential oils are toxic to cats.

10. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus [FIV]

FIV attacks and weakens a cat’s immune system over time. As the immune system becomes compromised, the cat becomes less able to fend off infections, including those affecting the respiratory system.

Some opportunistic infections may involve the respiratory system, leading to conditions like upper respiratory infections (URIs).

FIV-infected cats may experience chronic or recurrent respiratory infections. These ongoing infections can result in persistent sneezing as the immune system struggles to control and clear the infections.

Secondary Infections:

FIV can also lead to secondary bacterial infections in the respiratory tract. These bacterial infections can cause additional irritation, inflammation, and sneezing.

Nasal Discharge:

Sneezing may be accompanied by nasal discharge, which can be clear, mucous-like, or purulent (pus-filled), depending on the type of infection.

FIV-infected cats may have a compromised ability to clear nasal discharge effectively, leading to persistent sneezing.

Additionally, FIV is a chronic viral infection that requires ongoing management. Treatment of respiratory symptoms may include supportive care, antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, and medications to alleviate symptoms. 

11. Fungal Infections

Fungal spores are tiny, airborne particles released by certain types of fungi. Cats can inhale these spores when they are present in the environment, particularly in areas with high fungal activity or contaminated materials.

Once inhaled, fungal spores can settle in the respiratory tract, including the nasal passages and lungs. Depending on the type of fungus and the cat’s immune response, the spores can lead to fungal infections in these areas.

Fungal infections in the nasal passages can cause irritation and inflammation of sensitive skin. This irritation can trigger the sneezing reflex as the cat’s body attempts to clear the nasal passages.

Other Respiratory Symptoms

 Alongside sneezing, cats with fungal respiratory infections may exhibit: 

  • coughing, 
  • difficulty breathing, 
  • nasal congestion, 
  • and wheezing.

Common fungal organisms that can cause respiratory issues in cats and potentially lead to sneezing include:

Aspergillus spp. It is often associated with exposure to moldy environments or contaminated substances.

Cryptococcus neoformans: Cryptococcus is a yeast-like fungus that can affect the respiratory system and sometimes spread to other organs, including the central nervous system.

Blastomyces dermatitidis: Blastomyces is a fungal organism that can cause respiratory infections in cats, especially in regions where the fungus is endemic.

Histoplasma capsulatum: Histoplasma is another fungal organism that can lead to respiratory infections when cats inhale spores from contaminated soil.

Fungal infections in cats can vary in severity and may require specific diagnostic tests and treatment approaches.

Home Remedies For Cat Sneezing

1. Ensure your cat’s living space is clean and free of dust, allergens, and irritants. Regularly clean and vacuum your home to reduce airborne particles that can trigger sneezing.

2. Humidify the Air: A humidifier can help reduce nasal dryness and irritation, potentially relieving sneezing.

3. Provide your cat with a balanced and nutritious diet to support a healthy immune system. High-quality cat food can help your cat’s body better fend off infections that may lead to sneezing.

4. Create a steamy environment in your bathroom by running a hot shower and allowing your cat to spend some time in the steamy room. Steam can help loosen mucus and relieve nasal congestion.

5. Saline nasal drops or saline nasal spray formulated for cats can help moisten and soothe the nasal passages. Ask your veterinarian for guidance on using these products safely.

6. Hydration helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and can alleviate dryness in the nasal passages.

7. If you suspect allergies contribute to your cat’s sneezing, consider minimizing exposure to potential allergens. This may include hypoallergenic bedding or air purifiers.

8. Isolation and Quarantine: If you have multiple cats and one is sneezing, consider isolating the affected cat to prevent the potential spread of infections to others.

Remember that these home remedies should complement, not replace, professional veterinary care. If your cat’s sneezing persists, worsens, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms like nasal discharge, coughing, or changes in behavior, consult your veterinarian for a thorough evaluation and guidance on appropriate treatment options.

Vet Q&A

When should I worry about my cat sneezing?

Persistent or Prolonged Sneezing:

If your cat is sneezing frequently throughout the day or if the sneezing persists for more than a day or two, it’s a cause for concern. Chronic sneezing may indicate an underlying issue that needs attention.

Nasal Discharge:

If your cat’s sneezing is accompanied by a nasal discharge that is persistent, thick, discolored, or has a foul odor, it could be a sign of an infection or other respiratory problem.

Blood in Nasal Discharge:

The presence of blood in your cat’s nasal discharge, whether it’s visible as bloody sneezes or nosebleeds, is a red flag. This can indicate nasal trauma, infections, or more serious conditions.

Changes in Behavior or Appetite:

If your cat’s sneezing is accompanied by changes in behavior, such as lethargy, decreased activity, or loss of appetite, it may indicate an underlying illness that requires attention.

Coughing or Labored Breathing:

If your cat is sneezing and coughing, experiencing labored breathing, or making unusual respiratory noises, it may suggest a more significant respiratory issue.

Fever:

If you suspect your cat has a fever, characterized by a warm body, lethargy, shivering, and sneezing, it’s a sign of illness. Fever often indicates that the body is fighting an infection.

Sneezing Fits or Distress:

If your cat has sudden, severe, or frequent sneezing fits, appears distressed, or is pawing at its nose or face, seek immediate veterinary attention. This could be due to a foreign object lodged in the nasal passages or another emergency situation.

Visible Nasal Deformities or Swelling:

If you notice any changes in the shape of your cat’s nose or swelling around the nasal area, it may indicate an injury, abscess, or tumor.

Age and Preexisting Conditions:

Cats with preexisting health conditions, weakened immune systems, or a history of respiratory problems should be monitored closely. Any sneezing in these cats may warrant a veterinary evaluation.

Exposure to Sick Cats:

If your cat has been exposed to other cats with respiratory infections or if there’s been an outbreak in your household, monitor for signs of illness, including sneezing.

Is it normal for cats to sneeze a lot?

No, please take your cat to a vet for a checkup and diagnosis. 

Why does my cat keep sneezing but seems fine?

Some health issues may take longer to show other symptoms. If your cat is sneezing a lot, take it to the vet for a checkup and diagnosis.