If you notice that your kitten is sneezing a lot, he may need veterinary attention and intervention. Coughing and sneezing are often signs of upper respiratory infections, but can be caused by other issues. With some supportive care at home and help from your veterinarian, your kitten will be on the mend soon.

By Kate Eldredge Basedow, LVT
October 13, 2020
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Credit: F_N / Shutterstock

Your kitten sneezes. The first time, it’s adorable—the tiny "ah-choo," plus the way his face scrunches up afterward. But as the sneezes add up, you start to wonder…does my kitten need to see the vet?

Why Do Kittens Sneeze?

Kittens can sneeze for a variety of reasons. Common causes of kitten sneezing include:

  • Odd or noxious smells, such as from cleaning products or cooking spicy food
  • Airborne irritants, such as dust, dusty cat litter, pollen, perfume, or cigarette smoke
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Inflammation of the nasal cavity or sinuses
  • Foreign body in the nasal passages, such as a blade of grass or piece of a feather
  • Excitement
  • Allergic rhinitis or asthma (more common in adult cats)
  • Dental problems causing inflammation and swelling to impact the sinuses (more common in adult cats)
  • Cancer (rare)

Identifying the cause of your kitten’s sneezes can be very simple, or may require help from your veterinarian. Consider the environment when your kitten sneezes: Did a family member just spray Lysol, or have you been catching up on dusting? In these cases, your kitten’s nasal passages were probably just irritated a bit, and that tickling caused the sneeze. The sneezing should stop quickly once the air has cleared.

If the sneezing persists, there is probably something more involved going on. Consider if there is a pattern to the time of day or people who are around (such as a person who smokes or wears a lot of perfume) when your kitten sneezes or if it is constant. In most cases though, your kitten probably has an upper respiratory infection.

Upper Respiratory Infections

Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are common in kittens, especially if the kitten came from a high-density area such as a shelter or cattery or was found outside. These infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or a mix of pathogens, and are often extremely contagious.

Symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge (often clear, but can be yellow, greenish, or even bloody in severe cases)
  • Runny eyes (often clear, but can be yellow or greenish in more severe cases)
  • Poor appetite
  • Lethargy and not wanting to play
  • Dehydration
  • Ulcers on the tongue or in the mouth
  • Coughing
  • Repeated swallowing
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drooling

URI symptoms generally last about a week, and may be self-limiting and resolve on their own. More severe or chronic cases can last multiple weeks or continue off and on for the rest of your kitten’s life.

The most common culprits are the viruses feline viral rhinotracheitis (also known as feline herpesvirus) and calicivirus. Both of these viruses are very contagious and easily transmitted between cats. Feline herpes frequently includes conjunctivitis (irritation of the eyes), while calicivirus is known for causing ulcers on the tongue. Once a cat is infected with herpes, treatment is aimed at alleviating symptoms to get the virus to go into remission. If your kitten is stressed out or his immune system is compromised in the future, he can have flare-ups. Neither of these diseases is transmissible to humans.

Thankfully, we do have vaccines for both herpesvirus and calicivirus, and they are part of the kitten series your veterinarian will recommend. Common names for the vaccines that include protection for these two diseases include feline distemper vaccine, RCP (R for rhinotracheitis and C for calicivirus), and FVRCP (FVR for feline viral rhinotracheitis and C for calicivirus). While the vaccine won’t cure your kitten if he is already sick, it will help to protect against future infections and lessen symptoms. It is important to follow recommendations for vaccine boosters to make sure that your kitten develops adequate immunity to be protected.

Other infections that can cause sneezing include: feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia (FeLV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), chlamydia, bordetella, and mycoplasma. There are quick tests that can check for FIV and FeLV, and it is strongly recommended to test all new kittens before adding them to your home to prevent the spread of these diseases to your other cats. Some of these infections can be vaccinated against if your kitten is at risk for infection.

Treatment will depend on your kitten’s overall condition and the cause of his upper respiratory infection. In mild cases, your vet will make a loose diagnosis based on the examination of your kitten and his history. He will likely receive subcutaneous fluids to counteract dehydration and be sent home with medications to alleviate his symptoms and address any suspected bacterial element to his illness.

Common medications that may be included in your kitten’s treatment plan include:

  • Antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • Antivirals or the amino acid Lysine for viral infections
  • Eye drops or ointment
  • Nasal drops
  • Steroids to combat inflammation

If your kitten is really sick or is not responding to the initial conservative therapy, your veterinarian will recommend taking a swab of his throat and/or eyes to send out to a lab for testing to identify the exact cause of his illness. This is also an option for any sneezing kitten if you are interested in having a specific diagnosis.

At home, your sneezing kitten may need some extra TLC to get him feeling his best. Respiratory infections can impair his sense of smell and taste, resulting in poor appetite. To encourage him to eat, offer canned food that has a nice meaty smell and warm it up for a few seconds in the microwave to further increase the aroma. Your vet may also recommend using a humidifier to soothe his nasal passages. If you don’t have a humidifier, putting your kitten in the bathroom while you take a hot shower is an easy way to create some steam to help him breathe easier.

Rhinitis and Sinusitis

Rhinitis (inflammation of the nasal passages) and sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses) can occur on their own or as a result of an upper respiratory infection. The delicate tissues in these areas can be irritated by a variety of things, including cigarette smoke, cleaning products, pollen, dust, mold, and perfume. Irritation can also be caused by a foreign body lodged in the nasal passages, such as grass seeds or hair.

Symptoms are very similar to an upper respiratory infection, but almost always include nasal discharge and some sneezing, sniffling, or snorting. Your kitten may even paw at his nose due to the irritation. Nasal discharge in mild cases is clear and runny, but the inflammation makes your kitten vulnerable to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, which can cause the discharge to become thick and to appear yellow, green, or even bloody.

If your veterinarian suspects rhinitis or sinusitis (or rhinosinusitis if both areas are impacted), he or she will likely take a swab to send out for testing to identify any infectious agents present. This will allow your vet to choose the right medications to address any infection. A foreign body may be visible when looking into your kitten’s nose, but most likely advanced imaging such as X-rays, CT scan, or MRI will be necessary. Your kitten may also be sedated for a nasal flush to collect samples or for rhinoscopy, where a tiny camera is inserted into his nose to search for the cause of the problem. Foreign bodies can often be removed via rhinoscopy, but surgery may be necessary.

Prolonged inflammation can cause permanent damage to your kitten’s nasal passages, so prompt veterinary attention is important. Cats with chronic rhinitis may have a persistent sniffle and be predisposed to secondary infections and respiratory illnesses.

Asthma and Allergies

These conditions are more commonly identified in adult cats, but can show up in kittens. Cats with asthma frequently have a persistent cough and/or sneeze, and may have difficulty breathing. You may notice that symptoms wax and wane with the time of year or when your cat is allowed access to the outdoors. Feline asthma can have an allergic component and can be triggered by allergens such as pollen, particular plants and grasses, or even dust mites.

For environmental allergies, the majority of cats show skin lesions rather than the sneezing and itchy eyes that humans get.

Diagnosis of feline asthma is usually made with an exam and X-rays to evaluate your cat’s lungs. Allergies can be diagnosed through blood testing, but skin testing is still the gold standard. Treatment usually includes medications to combat inflammation in the lungs and possibly immunotherapy if allergies are present.

Vaccinations

Your kitten may have some transient sneezing shortly after receiving a vaccination for a respiratory disease. This is more likely with vaccines given intranasally, or into the nose. Why does this happen? Vaccines work like training wheels for your kitten’s immune system—they show the immune system a weakened or synthetic version of a pathogen so the immune system can make antibodies to combat it. Some types of vaccines may cause mild symptoms of illness. This will resolve in a matter of days. When your kitten gets a vaccination, feel free to ask your vet or the technician if there are any effects you should expect to see.

When You Should See a Vet

Kittens are vulnerable to illnesses because their immune systems are not fully developed. If your kitten only sneezes occasionally and otherwise appears happy and healthy, you can monitor him at home, but persistent sneezing and any additional symptoms warrants a trip to the vet to treat any underlying problems before they progress to something more serious.

Schedule a vet visit if your kitten:

  • Sneezes frequently
  • Has runny eyes
  • Has a runny nose
  • Sneezes blood
  • Is lethargic or depressed
  • Isn’t eating well
  • Is losing weight
  • Coughs
  • Has enlarged lymph nodes (you can feel these under his chin)

Your kitten may just have a straightforward upper respiratory infection, but could also have a secondary infection taking advantage of his already weakened immune system.

Advanced Treatment for Sneezing Kittens

Most cases of sneezing in kittens can be resolved with supportive care, including warming up food to encourage eating, keeping the kitten warm, cleaning the nose and eyes as needed, using a humidifier, and subcutaneous fluids for hydration. Separate your ill kitten from other cats and wash your hands after handling him to limit the risk of spreading disease.

More severe cases may require additional diagnostics and treatment measures. Diagnostics include blood work, urinalysis, X-rays, CT or MRI scans, nasal flush to collect samples, and taking a biopsy for evaluation. Very sick kittens may need to be fed with a feeding tube and may be hospitalized for intravenous fluids and more intensive therapy.

For chronic respiratory conditions, your vet will tailor a treatment plan to manage your cat’s symptoms. This might include daily medications to prevent or limit discomfort and/or medications to use when your cat has a flare-up.