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Veterinarian petting a cat at Bond Vet

Nasal Discharge in Cats: Why Does My Cat Have a Runny Nose?

There are many things that can cause a cat to sneeze or have a runny nose. But is it serious?

That depends on the underlying cause and how your furry friend is feeling. Read on to learn more about what causes cat nasal discharge, what to do for your kitty, and when to call the vet…

Common Causes of Nasal Discharge in Cats

Some possible causes of cat nasal discharge include…

  • Upper respiratory tract infections, which may be viral, bacterial, or both (or less commonly, fungal infections).

  • Seasonal allergies. Although allergies more commonly present as skin, ear, or digestive problems, some cats develop sneezing or other respiratory symptoms. 

  • Inhaled irritants. Just like humans, cats might develop sneezing, nasal irritation, or other respiratory symptoms due to dust, smoke, strong chemical smells (cleaning supplies, etc.), or even perfumes.

  • Polyps, benign masses that can irritate and obstruct the nasopharyngeal (behind the nasal passages and upper throat) area.

  • Tumors or cancer of the nasal tissues.

  • Dental disease. Severe dental issues can allow oral fluids or infection to spread to the nose.

  • Sinus problems which may cause recurrent nasal discharge.

  • Foreign objects getting stuck in the nose (uncommon, but possible).

Viral vs Bacterial Infections

Viral upper respiratory infections are extremely common in cats. In fact, many cats are chronic carriers of feline herpesvirus (also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis) but might not show symptoms for years. This dormant version of the virus can be reactivated during times of stress (moving to a new home, getting a new pet, etc.) or when a cat’s immune system is compromised (for example, when they are sick with another health condition). 

Feline calicivirus is another common upper respiratory virus that affects cats. Between the two, feline herpesvirus is more likely to cause eye discharge. But both viruses can cause similar symptoms, including eye problems, sneezing, nasal discharge, mouth ulcers, and fever.

While less common than viral infections, some bacterial infections can cause similar symptoms in cats—including the bacteria that causes canine kennel cough. And many cats contract secondary bacterial infections while fighting off a virus.

Accompanying Symptoms and What They Might Mean

Here are a few common symptoms that might occur along with nasal discharge…

  • Feline rhinitis. This term describes inflammation or infection of the nasal cavities. This can happen due to a variety of causes (including those discussed above) and typically results in sneezing, a runny nose, or swelling of the nasal passages. Sometimes, a cat might have mild rhinitis for a day or so (say, after accidentally inhaling dust while exploring under the bed). Other times, as a disease or condition progresses, the cat’s symptoms get worse.

  • Eye discharge, swelling, and redness. Conjunctivitis—or inflammation of the tissues around the eyes—is common with upper respiratory infections. You might notice redness or swelling of the eyelids. Seek care as soon as possible, since some viruses cause ulcers on the eyes (you might notice your pet blinking excessively or holding their eye close).

  • Decreased appetite. A cat may eat less than usual or stop eating entirely. One possible reason is that they feel sick, especially if they have a fever. It might also be painful to chew or swallow food if a cat has mouth ulcers or a sore throat. Finally, nasal congestion might reduce a cat’s sense of smell so that their food doesn’t appeal to them.

  • Drooling. Potential causes of drooling include mouth ulcers that accompany an upper respiratory infection, or dental disease.

  • Symptoms of illness such as lethargy, vomiting, weight loss, etc. can all occur with infections and certain other health conditions associated with nasal discharge.

My Cat Has a Runny Nose: How to Help at Home

If your cat is feeling well, eating normally, and acting like their normal self, it might be okay to monitor them for a couple of days. Just know that if an infection is present, it can get worse, and earlier treatment is better. 

If your cat is otherwise doing fine or you have your vet’s approval to try home care, here are some things that may help your furkid feel better…

  • Use a humidifier (no medications, just plain filtered water or saline). This can help break up nasal congestion and soothe irritated nasal passages. If you don’t have a humidifier, try keeping your cat in the bathroom when someone takes a hot shower so they can inhale the steam.

  • Avoid nasal irritants or strong odors. Use scent free products. Clean up dust in the home. Don’t smoke.

  • Offer soft, tasty foods and warm them up just slightly (warm or room temperature, not hot). This will help your cat smell their food and tempt their appetite. Try foods with strong odors like tuna.

  • Keep plenty of clean drinking water available.

  • Help your kitty keep their nose clear of dried, accumulated discharge. If they allow, soften the discharge with a wet, clean towel and gently wipe it away.

Always check with your veterinarian prior to giving any medications or supplements. Some can be toxic to cats!

When to Call the Vet

If your cat is unwell in any way—lethargic, eating less or not at all, or anything else that concerns you—they need urgent veterinary care. Difficulty breathing or severe illness are emergencies.

Here are a few things that should prompt a call to your veterinarian’s office and possibly an urgent veterinary visit…

  • Your cat’s nasal discharge or sneezing persist longer than a couple of days.

  • The discharge is getting worse, thicker, or becoming cloudy, white, yellow, green, or bloody rather than just clear.

  • Your cat has additional symptoms of illness, such as a fever, appetite loss, weight loss, or eye discharge.

  • Your cat has more pronounced or noisy breathing efforts. 

Also, consider seeking veterinary care sooner if your cat has chronic infections or if you have other cats in the home (infections can spread quickly between cats).

Diagnosis and Treatment of Cat Nasal Discharge

Instructions may vary based on your pet’s individual needs. Always follow your vet’s recommendations exactly.

If your cat has a runny nose for the first time and they’re otherwise well, your vet might send you home with some simple treatments or home care recommendations. If your cat is ill or has resilient or chronic symptoms, further diagnostics are typically required to get to the root of the problem.

Examples of diagnostic tests include infectious disease testing, x-rays of the nasal passages and sinuses, a rhinoscopy (a procedure in which a small camera is inserted into the nose for viewing and collecting samples), or a biopsy. Some of these tests require general anesthesia.

Depending on the underlying cause, here are some possible treatments…

  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications.

  • Nose drops (often just saline drops will do, but your vet might recommend medicated ones).

  • Other medications like antihistamines or antiinflammatories. 

  • Supplements (L-lysine is commonly recommended) for viral infections.

  • Fluid therapy, hospitalization, or other treatments for an ill cat.

  • Treatment directed at a specific underlying cause, such as surgery to remove a polyp or extract a bad tooth.

Prognosis for Cats with a Runny Nose

Prognosis depends on the underlying cause. Some cats struggle with chronic or long-term nasal congestion. While less common, the prognosis can be grave for some kitties (for example, with a diagnosis of cancer).

Fortunately, many kitties have an occasional infection or rhinitis episode and bounce back just fine with prompt treatment.

How to Prevent Respiratory Issues in Cats

Always keep your furkid up to date on routine care, including core vaccinations that protect against common respiratory infections. 

Should your kitty ever develop signs of a respiratory infection, seek care as soon as possible.

Keep your cat indoors to minimize their risk of exposure to infectious diseases, allergens, and foreign objects like grass awns that can get stuck in the nose. Indoors, eliminate dust and strong scents as much as possible—and never smoke inside where your cat could be exposed. Choose a dust-free, scent-free brand of kitty litter.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please schedule a telehealth or clinic visit. We’ll be happy to see your furkid and help them feel better!

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