Pet 411: The nose knows – Why does my cat keep sneezing?

Having a stuffy nose is unpleasant, whether you’ve got two legs or four.  It’s also one of the most common problems we see in our feline patients.  

One of our readers, Diane, wrote to tell me about her frustration in trying to help her 2-year-old cat, who has been sneezing bloody mucus. She spent hundreds of dollars for tests but the cause is still unclear. He has been on medication for three months but she hasn’t seen any improvement.

Unfortunately, nasal problems can be tricky to diagnose because there are several potential causes to explore. With younger cats, the common cause is often a viral infection. A lot of kittens will contract a virus such as herpes from their mothers or other kittens at the shelter or breeder.

Viruses typically resolve on their own unless the cat has an immune-related condition, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia (FeLV). A secondary bacterial infection is also not uncommon and a veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics in these cases.

Other likely causes if your kitty starts sneezing? A foreign object, such as a blade of grass, may be to blame, or it could be benign polyps in the nasal cavity. Like humans, cats may be allergic to airborne allergens, such as dust or plant pollen. In older cats, it’s important to test for cancerous tumors. Some tests your veterinarian may recommend include bloodwork, a respiratory virus test (called PCR) and a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Medications are typically tried for a few weeks; however, if no improvement is noted, further diagnostics will likely be recommended.

One thing to keep in mind: X-rays of the nose don’t help very much in these cases. There are simply too many little bones in a cat’s nose that obstruct the view. Also, tumors or polyps are unlikely to show up on an X-ray. A CT-scan will typically provide a much clearer picture of what’s going on.

While the cat is under anesthesia for the CT scan, a veterinarian can perform a rhinoscopy, where a flexible scope is passed into the mouth and around the soft palate to look at the back of the nasal cavity. A more rigid scope is then passed in each nostril. This allows for the collection of biopsy samples, which can be used to determine whether the cat is suffering from allergies, an auto-immune disease or something more serious. If a foreign object is detected, that can be removed during the procedure.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore symptoms such as chronic sneezing. Seek the advice of your family veterinarian. Your cat could require treatment ranging from antibiotics to antiviral medications.

Thanks for writing, Diane. All of us hope that your cat feels better soon!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.