Like humans, cats sneeze to clear the nasal passages of irritants or debris. An occasional sneeze or even sneezing fit is probably the result of a momentary irritation, but continuous sneezing is reason for concern and should be addressed by your vet. If other symptoms such as runny nose or eyes, loss of appetite or sneezing blood occur, it could be the sign of a serious problem. There are three main causes of continuous sneezing in a cat, and treatment depends upon the primary complaint.
Bacterial upper respiratory infections are highly contagious and are the most common causes of sneezing in cats. As bacteria reproduce and flourish in the nasal passages, the tissues become irritated and inflamed, and the body tries to expel the irritant by sneezing. As the infection progresses, nasal discharge and runny eyes may occur, and the cat may refuse to eat her food because she is too congested to be able to smell it.
Feline Calcivirus is a relatively mild flu-like illness that infects the mouth and lungs and can cause sneezing. Feline herpesvirus is transmitted through contact with infected cats and leaves the cat vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is also transmitted through contact with an infected cat but cannot be cured. Like HIV in humans, FIV stays with a cat its entire life, destroying its ability to fight off infection. Although the symptoms of viral infections are similar to those of bacterial infections, a complete blood count will show which of the two is at work.
If your cat is sneezing but otherwise healthy and symptom-free, the cause may be airborne irritants. Odors from perfume, smoke, cleaning fluids or even dust from the litter box all have the potential to irritate the sensitive nasal tissues. To the cat, it feels like something tickling her sinuses, and she will sneeze repeatedly to dislodge it.
Bacterial infections are generally easily treated with antibiotics, although it may require more than one course. Viral infections require a more complicated treatment schedule, including antibiotics, nebulization and, in many cases, long-term care.
Some viruses like FIV cannot be cured, but proper medical care and lifestyle changes can keep it under control and prevent secondary infections from reducing the cat’s quality of life. If you think that a simple case of airborne irritants is causing your cat to sneeze, vacuum and clean your home well and open the windows to let fresh air in. If the cat continues to sneeze, consult your vet.
Because respiratory infections are transmitted through contact with infected cats, keeping your cat indoors only is a good first step in preventing transmission. Keep your yard free of strays, and if you touch a stray cat, wash your hands well with soap before touching your own cat because saliva from the stray’s coat can still contain the infectious agent and can come into your house on your hands or clothing. To prevent airborne irritants from causing problems for your cat, use a HEPA filter on your vacuum and consider using air purifiers in the cat’s environment.