One moment, your cat’s nuzzling comfortably into the nape of your neck. Not a second later, your kitty’s lurching her head back, firing up a sneeze, and splattering droplets everywhere. The high-pitched sound is adorable; the post-sneeze wipe isn’t — so what causes cats to sneeze a lot?
What causes cats to sneeze are pungent chemical smells, uncomfortable nose tickles, dirt and dust blockage, or foreign bodies (like grass) in the nose. More frequent cat sneezing usually stems from seasonal allergies (triggered by allergens like pollen), viruses, and upper respiratory infections.
Just like humans, a cat’s sneezing doesn’t always mean she’s sick or has seasonal allergies. To learn about what triggers cat sneezes, how to prevent them, and when to see a vet, read on!
What Happens When a Cat Sneezes?
When a cat’s respiratory system detects an intruder like dust or grass, this foreign particle typically comes with irritation, an itchy sensation in the back of the nose. The brain’s response is to clear the particle from the airway to relieve this discomfort — the sneezing reflex.
This forceful rush of air can push the foreign body out of the nose and cure the itching immediately. However, a cat may repeatedly sneeze if the allergen is stubborn or a respiratory virus is causing this reaction.
Certain Strong Smells
What cats lack in their visual acuity, they certainly make up for in their sense of smell. A cat’s nose is at least 14 times stronger than the average human’s, making noxious chemical odors even more potent to your kitty’s nose. Many cats sneeze — or even wheeze — when they get up close and personal with scents from:
- Cigarette smoke
- Fragrant perfumes and colognes
- Air fresheners and detergents
- Cleaning supplies and disinfectants
- Scented kitty litters
- New carpeting and plastics
For this reason alone, all-natural or unscented household products are far less irritating to a cat’s sensitive nose. Use household chemicals in moderation, deep clean new items to get rid of strong odors, and dilute chemicals whenever possible.
A Nose Tickle
A cat’s sneezing can be a sign of a severe medical condition. However, most often, sneezing is nothing more than a gentle nose tickle, like the one you feel after kicking up dust with the vacuum.
A quick sneeze will clear up the itchiness in the back of the throat or nose, and your cat will continue going about her day as usual. Short of dusting regularly and keeping your cat away from outdoor pollutants, there aren’t many ways to prevent the occasional sneeze.
Dust, Dirt, or Airborne Particles
Whereas other species learn about their environments via sight, touch, and taste, cats rely primarily on their sense of smell. A cat will follow her nose as she tracks a nearby mouse’s scent or tries to detect dinner remnants in her food bowl.
Tiny dust, dirt, and airborne particles can wind up in your kitty’s nose if she accidentally inhales too deeply while exploring. Some examples of common household irritants that cause sneezing in cats are:
- Mold spores
- Cleaning powders
- Loose or stray hairs
- Catnip shavings
It’s easy to tell if your cat’s relentless sneezing comes from irritants because she’ll sneeze almost immediately after sniffing. The best ways to limit these sneezing fits and pollutants are:
- Vacuuming daily
- Sweeping weekly
- Dusting monthly
- Setting up an air purifier to pull harmful toxins from the air
- Cleaning while your cat’s in the other room
You can’t stop your cat’s hunting urges or instincts, putting the responsibility of keeping your home and yard clean entirely on you as a pet owner.
Seasonal and Environmental Allergies
Just like humans can be allergic to anything from pollen to laundry detergents, felines are also prone to seasonal and environmental allergies. Allergies can cause sneezing fits, watery eyes, coughing, bloating, and skin itchiness in cats. Some of the more common cat allergies are:
- Fleas and mites
- Dust and dirt
- Certain ingredients in cat foods (mainly beef or chicken)
- Strong perfumes, like those found in laundry detergents or body soaps
- Certain types of cat litter
Luckily, discovering what your cat is allergic to is simple if you narrow down recent changes in the household.
- Did your cat begin scratching and sneezing after you changed her dry food?
- Did the sneezing and coughing start after you washed her favorite blanket with a new detergent?
- Did the trees recently begin blooming in early spring?
One by one, “undo” the changes you’ve made and see if it reverses your cat’s symptoms. A cat sensitive to irritants may also prefer dust-free litter, a prescription diet, unscented cleaners, and regular flea and tick preventatives. Severe cat allergies might require antihistamine treatments to reduce itchiness and respiratory responses.
Do you want to learn more about the most common cat allergies? The video below will explain the eight most common causes of relentless sneezing, itching, and chewing in our feline friends:
Viruses and Infections
Cats can pick up viruses or infections anywhere — from their outdoor feline friends, other cats at the kennel, or even you directly. All it takes is a single airborne pathogen to enter into your feline’s respiratory system and begin wreaking havoc. Upper respiratory tract infections can cause symptoms like:
- Watering eyes
- Nasal discharge
- Lack of appetite
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) aren’t the only sneeze triggers in kitties. Other viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens can spread like wildfire in close-knit cat communities, especially in cats who share food bowls, litter boxes, and sleeping quarters.
Some examples of highly contagious cat viruses include ringworm, toxoplasmosis, feline calicivirus, and feline herpesvirus. While the sneezing fits and lethargy are uncomfortable, most of these conditions are highly treatable.
It’s also worth pointing out that cats with compromised immune systems — notably feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) — are more prone to respiratory infections and sneezing throughout their lifetimes.
Watching your cat sneeze, sniffle, and feel unwell can be challenging as a loving pet parent. The video below will show how you can help clear a kitten’s nasal congestion to help her feel better:
Foreign Bodies in the Respiratory System
In most cases, the accidental inhalation of small airborne particles will require a sneeze or two to reduce the tickle. But occasionally, these foreign bodies become lodged in the back of the nose or throat, preventing your kitty from swallowing them or propelling them through the airway (by sneezing).
Some stubborn foreign bodies that are known to cause sneezing in cats include:
- Blades of grass
- Small pieces of clay litter
- Loose hairs
- Bone shards
Many cats can clear these blockages with persistent sneezing or deep swallowing. However, a persistently trapped blade of grass will need professional removal by a veterinarian. Never try to remove these foreign bodies with tweezers or forced sneezes, which can do more harm than good. Keeping your cat indoors and cleaning up small items can prevent this in the future.
An occasional sneeze is normal in cats. In most cases, sneezing will begin to fade within 7-21 days as the virus exits her system. However, there are a few signs that your cat’s sneezing is no longer innocent or cute. Take your four-legged friend to the vet when her sneeze comes with:
- Eye and nose discharge
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy or severe fatigue
- Diarrhea or vomiting
The best ways to keep your cat free of viruses and infections are staying up-to-date on her vaccinations and keeping her strictly indoors.