Dr. Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT, Veterinary Specialist on behalf of Pumpkin Pet Insurance
Why is my cat sneezing… does my cat have a cold?
June 5, 2020
While cat sneezes are cute to hear, it's not normal. Causes of sneezing in cats may be acute or chronic - sometimes it's due to irritants (such as chemicals, cigarette smoke, cleaning products/fragrances, perfumed cat litter, etc.), allergens, a rare foreign body (e.g., a blade of grass) or even a parasitic infection (e.g., Cuterebra) in the nose. Chronic cat sneezing may be due to inflammation (called rhinitis), fungal infections, or even cancer, and needs appropriate work-up and long term management. But most of the time, cat sneezing is due to an upper respiratory infection (URI)... and it's quite common in cats... especially if you adopted or purchased a cat from an animal rescue or breeder. Here, what you need to know about these URIs (or what I call “cat colds!”).
What exactly is a URI?
Feline upper respiratory infections (URIs) are a common cause of sneezing, runny eyes, discharge from the nose, and even “pink eye” in cats. Some cases of “cat colds” can be mild – from the occasional sneeze – to more severe, which may manifest as decreased appetite (to not eating at all!), lethargy, fever, and acting aloof or hiding. Feline URI is similar to a “common cold” in a human (although the viruses causing it are different). In humans, common colds are typically due to viral infections, and are typically seen more in the winter. That’s different from “cat colds,” which can be seen all year-long. (As a veterinarian, I usually see more sneezing cats in the spring and summer, which likely coincides with “kitten” season, when shelters are overwhelmed by pet overpopulation.)
What causes feline URIs?
In cats, URIs can be caused by:1
- Feline herpesvirus (FHV-1), a virus
- Feline calicivirus (FCV), a virus
- Chlamydia spp.
- Mycoplasma spp.
- Bordetella bronchiseptica (known as “dog” kennel cough)
- And more recently in the news, SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus), albeit rare
How did my cat get a URI?
URIs are transmitted by exposure to certain bodily fluids (such as the saliva spray of fluid coming out of your cat’s sneeze or runny nose!). And chances are, your cat may have caught their URI before you adopted or purchased him or her! When cats are exposed to a URI, they can develop clinical signs in as short as 2-5 days. Then, when you bring this new cat into your household, your other cats may be directly exposed… and now everyone’s sneezing! Thankfully, URIs typically aren’t contagious to you (With causes such as herpesvirus and Chlamydia, that’s important to know!), but these feline URIs can be extremely infectious and contagious to other cats. (That’s why I’m such an advocate of separating and quarantining a new pet in your household from other pets for at least 5-7 days to be safe).
It’s also important to know that like that human cold sore on your lip, URI viruses can “hide” in the body for years in the “latent” form. Especially if your cat has a problem with their immune system (e.g., if they are immunosuppressed from feline immunodeficiency virus or are a young kitten). What does this mean? It means that if your cat caught a cat cold a decade ago from the shelter when you adopted your cat, it can “recrudesce” and come back with any type of stress. Just like our cold sore. So, going to on a car trip to visit relatives. Going to the veterinarian. Going to the groomer. These can also result in another relapse of a URI in cats, so don’t be surprised if some sneezing starts.
Clinical signs of a feline upper respiratory infection:
The most common signs of a “cat cold” are:
- Nasal discharge
- Eye discharge
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty chewing food
- Drooling (usually secondary to ulcerations in the mouth (e.g., on the tongue, palate, etc.)
- Bad breath
- Increased pink coloring or redness to the tissues surrounding the eyes (e.g., conjunctivitis)
- Squinting of the eyes due to corneal ulceration
- Breathing harder
- Breathing with the mouth open
- Increased respiratory effort
- Loud breathing or snoring sounds
How does my veterinarian diagnose my cat with a URI?
Most of the time, when we veterinarians diagnose your cat with a URI, it’s based on history, clinical signs, physical examination findings, and response to treatment. In other words, if you just adopted a cat, it’s sneezing and has discharge from his or her nose and eyes and the signs go away in 7-10 days, we are pretty sure it’s a URI! We typically don’t run blood tests for a feline URI, as there’s no one specific – or reasonably priced test – for a URI. That said, blood work should be done in really sick cats to rule out a low blood sugar, dehydration, anemia, evidence of infection (e.g., based on an elevated white blood cell count), feline leukemia/FIV status, or general health screening. While there are tests that can look specifically for specific URI viruses (e.g., antibody tests, conjunctival smears, etc.), these are less commonly done (and by a veterinary specialist or ophthalmologist).
How do you treat a feline URI?
Just like your (human) cold, there’s no “cure” or antidote or medication for a feline URI. Treatment for a cat cold is really just tender loving care at home! Most of the time, this will go away in approximately a week.2 That said, if it doesn’t, or if your cat isn’t eating for more than 2-3 days, get to a veterinarian as some cats may need to be hospitalized for more intensive care.
So, what can you do at home?
- Buy a humidifier. If your cat sleeps with you, consider using a humidifier in the bedroom to help hydrate the nasal passages. This will make it easier to wipe away the nose crusts!
- Bring your cat into the bathroom with you. When you go to shower, let your cat lounge on the bathroom floor (not into the shower) with you and skip the ceiling fan. The humidified, warm, steamy air will help keep your cat breathing better.
- Yummy canned cat food please! When your cat’s nose is occluded with discharge or cat boogers, your cat can’t smell the food. If your cat can’t smell his or her food, he won’t eat his or her food. So, you’ll need to tempt your cat to eat with something super palatable – human meat-based baby food (e.g., Gerber turkey) or INABA Churu cat food works in a pinch to tempt your cat to eat. (Keep in mind that you should not feed human baby food for long-term in your cat, as it’s not balanced and can cause severe amino acid abnormalities). Alternatively, try microwaving a small amount of different types of cat food for a few seconds to make it more enticing to your cat (Make sure it’s not too hot prior to feeding!). Also, try hand feeding your cat as it may help encourage your cat to eat – just no force feeding, as that’s a huge no-no!
- Quarantine time! If you have more than one cat, it’s pet quarantine time! You want to keep your sick cat indoors only (so they don’t spread it to outdoor cats or feral cats either!) and away from other feline family housemates, since URIs are so contagious.
- Nursing care. Please use a damp cloth or cotton wipe to gently wipe away any discharge from the nose, eyes and mouth. Cats are obligate nose breathers – in other words, they don’t open their mouth to breath unless they are really struggling, so keep those nostrils clean and clear!
- Lysine. Go ahead and skip it. While it’d be nice if it helped, recent evidence hasn’t found lysine to directly benefits cats with URI. Not worth pilling your cat over!
But what if your cat is showing more significant signs, or your cat isn’t getting any better from the URI? Please get to a veterinarian. That’s because additional medication and supportive care may be needed. This includes subcutaneous fluids (given under the skin) to help hydrate your cat, a long-acting antibiotic injection (if there’s evidence of secondary bacterial infection or pus from the eyes or nose), appetite stimulants (e.g., mirtazapine), or even eye medication (if corneal ulcers or conjunctivitis is present). In rare cases, an emergency or overnight veterinary visit may be necessary for intravenous (IV) fluids, IV antibiotics, oxygen, supportive care (e.g., including nebulization, humidification, heat support), and a temporary feeding tube in severe cases.
When in doubt, the prognosis for feline URI is good with supportive care. Try the home remedies above for your cat’s URI, but if your cat stops eating after 2-3 days, or is getting worse, a veterinary exam is a must! Also, remember that keeping your cat up-to-date on vaccines, indoor, and healthy is the best way to prevent a URI to begin with!
- Kuehn NF. Feline respiratory disease complex. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual. Accessed June 9, 2020 at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/respiratory-system/respiratory-diseases-of-small-animals/feline-respiratory-disease-complex
- Feline Upper Respiratory Infection. Accessed June 9, 2020 at https://www.sheltermedicine.com/library/resources/?r=feline-upper-respiratory-infection-aka-uri