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Why is my cat sneezing? Can cats catch colds?

By Dr. Jacqueline Brister

brown cat sneezing

Just like people, there are many reasons that can cause cats to sneeze. Some causes of sneezing are not serious and are not a cause for concern. A common example of this is the occasional sneeze when your cat inhales too much dust or pollen through his nose. In this case, sneezing is a normal reaction and helps to keep the airways clear. Another example of a normal sneeze is a “photic sneezing reflex.” Animals (and humans) often sneeze, or have the urge to sneeze, when they are abruptly exposed to a bright light, especially sunlight. Sneezing can also be caused by medical issues. If your cat is sneezing frequently, or if in addition to sneezing he has watery eyes, a runny nose, and/or a poor appetite, you may want to get him checked out by your veterinarian.

Can cats catch a cold?

Yes and no. Colds that infect people are caused by certain viruses that affect the upper respiratory tract such as the nose or nasal passages, mouth, and throat. The rhinovirus is the most common type of cold virus people can catch. Cats can develop upper respiratory tract infections too, but they do not get the same types of colds as people. To keep things clear, and because the “common cold” in humans refers to the rhinovirus type, veterinary medicine professionals don’t typically use the term “cold.”

Upper respiratory tract symptoms in cats are often similar to that in people – runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, poor appetite, and feeling or acting run-down. Bacteria and viruses that cause these cold-like symptoms in cats include feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus, Chlamidophila felis, Mycoplasma spp, and kennel cough syndrome (a group of bacteria and viruses including Bordatella bronchiseptica).

In cats, upper respiratory tract infections can become chronic, or recur frequently with time. This can sometimes be associated with additional illnesses that affect the immune system such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). These viruses prevent the immune system from working properly, which often results in more frequent episodes of upper respiratory tract infections and cold-like symptoms.

Are feline upper respiratory tract infections contagious?

Just as colds in people are not contagious to cats, upper respiratory tract infections of cats are typically not contagious to other species. However, these types of infections can be contagious to other cats, especially older, sick, or pregnant cats and young kittens. The good news is that many of these upper respiratory tract infections can be vaccinated against, which will decrease the symptoms or prevent the illnesses altogether.

Polyps

The other major cause of sneezing in cats is a polyp. Polyps are noncancerous masses that grow off of the lining of the inner ear. As they grow, they either push their way into the external ear canal (i.e., aural polyp), or grow backward into the space at the back of the mouth and nose (i.e., nasopharyngeal polyp). Nasopharyngeal polyps can block the back of the nose and irritate this area which leads to sneezing and runny nose. Sometimes noisy breathing can be heard too. Diagnosis can sometimes be made with x-rays and a sedated exam, but often a special tool called an endoscope is needed. An endoscope can be used to look at the back of the throat and inside the nose. Surgery is usually needed to remove the polyp.

Other Causes of Sneezing in Cats

Allergies are a less common cause of sneezing in cats. Cats can be allergic to many things, including pollens, dust, and mold. Symptoms usually include sneezing and watery eyes. Another cause of sneezing in cats is dental disease and/or tooth decay. Nasal foreign bodies can also cause sneezing. These are objects that accidentally get sniffed up the nose such as grass seeds or litter.

What can I do about my cat's sneezing?

If your cat is sneezing, especially if he also has cold-like symptoms, call your veterinarian. He or she will likely recommend an examination. After your cat has been given a check-up, the vet will provide you with options for how to resolve the issue. Be sure to let your veterinarian know if the treatments are helping or if your cat isn’t showing improvement. Call your vet’s office if you have any questions or concerns.

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