Cat sneezing

No one likes having a stuffy nose — it is impossible to smell your food, hard to sleep and generally pretty miserable! The medical term for a stuffed-up nose is rhinitis and it is fairly common for cats to suffer from both acute and long-standing (chronic) rhinitis. Cats with rhinitis often experience some degree of nasal discharge, sneezing and/or loud “congested” breathing. Some affected cats may paw at their face, have deformity of the nose or only be able to breathe through the mouth. Discharge may be from one side of the nose (unilateral) or from both sides (bilateral). Nasal discharge may be clear, cloudy with mucus, pus-like or bloody in nature. All of these observations can help your veterinarian get to the bottom of the problem to help ease the sniffles in your cat. Keep in mind that certain cat breeds — such as Himalayan and Persians — have a “pushed in” face structure that often causes them to sound a bit more “snuffly” than other breeds. While this is generally not cause for concern, you should ask your veterinarian if you have questions. Here is a quick rundown of what I see as the top 10 causes of rhinitis in cats:

1. Viral Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)

Fully 90 percent of acute rhinitis in cats is caused by the highly contagious herpes and caliciviruses. These viruses are common in young cats, cats in boarding and shelter environments and newly adopted cats. The discharge is usually bilateral, clear or cloudy and is frequently accompanied by discharge from the eyes as well as fever. While the initial viral infection is usually short-lived and may resolve within seven to 10 days, cats may become chronic carriers of these viruses and be more likely to have recurrent signs in the future.

2. Bacterial Infections

Most nasal bacterial infections are secondary to some other disease process (i.e. foreign body, viral URI, nasal polyp, etc.). Although primary bacterial infection is uncommon in cats, it does occur and Bordetella, Mycoplasma and Chlamydophila bacteria species are the most common culprits. The expected discharge would be bilateral and often pus-like in nature.

3. Fungal infections

Environmental fungus is capable of infecting both indoor and outdoor cats and Cryptococcus infection is the most common. Fungal infections may cause asymmetry of the face and nasal swelling and the discharge is usually unilateral and pus-like or bloody in nature.

4. Parasites

Nasal parasites are very uncommon in cats. Outdoor cats may become infested with botfly eggs (called Cuterebra) when they stick their head into or sniff around small animal burrows. If botfly eggs hatch into larvae within a cat’s nose they can cause significant pus-like or bloody unilateral discharge and cats often paw severely at their face.

5. Foreign body

It is quite common for cats to have blades of grass, seeds or even grass awns lodged in the nose. An acute one-sided discharge, often accompanied by pawing at the face and severe sneezing, could indicate a nasal foreign body.

6. Oral disease

Severe periodontal disease is characterized by progressive infection that can sometimes lead to a hole between the mouth and the nose called an oronasal fistula. Young kittens can also be affected by cleft palates, which allow a similar defect to occur. Material from the mouth can become impacted into the nasal passages and create significant inflammation and secondary infection. With an oronasal fistula, the associated discharge is unilateral and often pus-like, bloody or may even contain food or plant particles. If it is due to a cleft palate, it may be bilateral. If milk comes out of a kitten’s nose while nursing, an immediate veterinary exam is recommended.

7. Inflammatory polyps

Polyps are benign, fleshy masses often found in the nasal area and sometimes even extending into the middle ear. The exact cause is unknown, but young cats are commonly affected by inflammatory nasal or nasopharyngeal polyps, which can cause chronic unilateral nasal discharge, congestion and sneezing.

8. Nasal cancer

Cats with nasal cancer are usually older and have unilateral discharge that is often bloody in nature. The most common cancers of the nose are lymphoma and adenocarcinoma.

9. Allergies

Cats may experience clear bilateral discharge and sneezing related to environmental allergens such as mold, dust mites, grasses and tree pollen.

10. Idiopathic

Cats may experience intermittent, recurrent episodes of sneezing and nasal discharge that have no apparent cause — that’s what idiopathic means. It is suspected that acute bacterial or viral URIs may predispose certain cats to the development of permanent nasal changes resulting in chronic ongoing inflammation. The diagnosis of rhinitis is based on a cat’s medical history and physical examination findings. As outlined above, certain causes of rhinitis are more common in outdoor cats, young cats or cats with the presence of unilateral or bloody discharge. Although your cat’s medical history will be important to your veterinarian in making a diagnosis, an anesthetized examination sometimes is required in order to determine the underlying cause for many of these problems. This is especially true for cats affected by chronic rhinitis. Under anesthesia, your veterinarian may perform a complete oral examination to ensure there are no abnormal defects (meaning holes) between the mouth and the nasal passageways. An evaluation for foreign bodies and polyps may be performed. Your veterinarian may recommend a combination of X-rays, nasal flushing, nasal culture or other diagnostic tests for infectious diseases in order to make the correct diagnosis. A nasal scoping procedure (called rhinoscopy) and nasal biopsies may be necessary in order to make a diagnosis. In cats suspected of having fungal infections or cancer, a CT scan may also be recommended. The prognosis for rhinitis depends on the underlying cause as well as your cat’s response to treatment. If you notice your cat is making more respiratory noise than normal, a visit to your veterinarian is called for. If your cat appears to be having trouble breathing, this should be treated as a medical emergency and you should have your cat seen immediately.

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