“My kitten is sneezing!”
That is one of the most common complaints of people with new kittens.
Whether the little muffin has been adopted from a shelter, purchased from a breeder, or found and rescued as a feral kitten on the street, kittens often develop a sneeze. Sneezing is usually a sign of upper respiratory disease.
So, Why Is My Kitten Sneezing?
Unfortunately, we veterinarians don’t have a magic “kitten-sneezing ball” to tell you why your kitten is sneezing.
But most sneezy furballs have contracted a kitten cold. These cold symptoms like sneezing and runny eyes are usually caused by a virus.
So much that goes into treating kittens has to do with the severity and longevity and description of the sneezing.
Here’s how to assess your sneezing kitten at home so you can call and see your vet with the details…
How Severe Is the Kitten’s Sneezing?
- How many times a day does the kitten sneeze? Is it 5–6 times a day?
- How long is the sneezing episode?
- Does the kitten recover immediately?
- Does the sneezing take it out of them, or do they run around like a maniac once the sneezing is done?
- Does it leave them in some kind of distress?
- Are there other symptoms besides the sneeze such as runny eyes, a cough, lack of appetite or lethargy?
How Long Has the Kitten Been Sneezing?
- How long has this sneezing been going on, and what is its progression? Have you had this kitten home for at least 1 week, and is the sneezing getting worse or better?
- Find out from the shelter or breeder if the kitten was sneezing before adoption and if the kitten was treated. What were they treated with?
- Did you think the sneeze was improving but now it’s back?
- Do you have any other cats, and are they sneezing, too?
- All information you can bring to your vet really helps with a diagnosis.
What Is the Sneezing Like?
The description of the sneeze is important and helps your vet. Photos and videos of sneezing kittens are always appreciated.
- Is it a clear, watery sneeze that you feel on your arm?
- Is it a sneeze with no production, meaning you don’t get any or little spray on your arm?
- Is it a sneeze with gross stuff that comes out?
Gross stuff, you say? Clients can get creative when describing nasal discharge. (One of my all-time favorites is “snot rockets.”)
Upper Respiratory Disease in Kittens: Think About the Common Cold
Upper respiratory viruses are the most common cause of kitten sneezing.
These upper respiratory ailments are similar to the human common cold.
You cannot, however, give your kitten a cold or vice versa. Kitten upper respiratory symptoms are analogous to the human cold, but your kitten is infectious only to other cats and kittens, not to you.
Your cold and your kitten’s sneezing can be self-limiting — meaning the kitten will sneeze for several days and then it will go away, like a simple cold — or the sneeze can hang on and develop into a more serious infection.
- The most common upper respiratory viruses in kittens have names: feline herpesvirus and calicivirus, to name a few.
- Bacterial infections also occur. Bacteria like mycoplasma and chlamydia can invade the respiratory tract of kittens and cats.
Sneezing can be accompanied by a cough or conjunctivitis, and can lead to deeper infections including pneumonia.
Obviously, these kitties who have more than a little “achoo” once in a while need veterinary care, and we are no longer talking about a simple case of kitten sneezing.
Typical Veterinary Visits of the Sneezing Kitten
1. Appointment says: Kitten sneezing; adopted from a shelter 3 days ago.
I meet Calamity Jane, and she seems like a healthy happy kitten who is running up my arm and bouncing off the rafters. Maybe I hear 1 sneeze in 15 minutes.
The new pet parent says Calamity sneezes once or twice at a time and maybe 4 times a day.
I ask if the shelter tested for the important retroviral diseases of feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and the new mom says, “Yes, Calamity tested negative for those diseases.” Good news.
If I see no other signs of an eye infection, and the kitten hasn’t sneezed in the past 20 minutes while she is attached to the miniblinds on my window, then I will send this kitty home with the instructions for the mom to call me if the sneezing does not go away or if it gets worse over the next several days.
2. Appointment says: Kitten found in dumpster several days ago and sneezing getting much worse.
In this case, the poor little kitten is sneezing in the room, his eyes have gook in them, and he wants to run around but has lost that “Hi, I’m an insane kitty and want to run around until I drop” look in his eyes.
I encourage testing this kitty for the all-important FeLV and FIV, and I might do more blood work if the parents can afford it.
If the kitten is negative, thank goodness. We might do some supportive care in the hospital (like administering some fluids) and send the kitty home on oral antibiotics and some eye ointment.
Many of these sick kittens are better within 1 week.
3. Appointment says: Kitten went home with antibiotics 2 weeks ago, but sneezing is worse. Kitten is lethargic and owner is worried.
This kitty needs more help. We now have to look into reasons why this typical sneezing kitten is not so typical.
This kitten could have been unhealthy from day 1, have a number of upper respiratory infections, or be suffering from a less common problem such as an inflammatory polyp affecting the nasal cavity.
- Are we allowed to do full blood work on the kitten to make sure they are otherwise healthy?
- Can we take chest X-rays to make sure there is no pneumonia?
- Should we do other X-rays of the head and neck?
- Should we send out an upper respiratory blood panel? (These are expensive and results are, at best, not so reliable.)
- Is it time to anesthetize the kitten and look for one of those pesky inflammatory polyps hiding somewhere in the retropharyngeal region? These polyps can hide in a variety of places and be difficult to diagnose.
- Do we try adding an antiviral drug into the mix?
Although I have not covered all the diagnostics and treatment options available, the more involved cases don’t have a simple answer.
Allergies, Inhalant Irritants
People often think a sneezing kitten has allergies since sneezing in humans is so often caused by allergies, and so they anthropomorphize.
But kittens do not often sneeze from true allergies. They may sneeze in reaction to a noxious stimulant such as dusty litter or something in the environment, but true allergic disease in cats does not generally develop until they are older.
If your kitten runs into the litter box and starts sneezing, or sticks their nose into a plant or comes out from under the bed with dust bunnies hanging from their ears and face, those irritants might make them sneeze.
But does your kitten continue sneezing once the irritant has been removed? If you can do a “cause and effect” trial and figure out that the kitten sneezes only when in certain environments, then remove the noxious stimuli.
Certain environments will cause a kitten to sneeze, and some people may not be aware of the irritants in their environment:
- Cigarette smoke
- Homes that are dirty, dusty and filthy
- Homes with many cats and urine smells and dirty litter boxes abounding
- Kittens housed in garages or outbuildings with building debris or all those noxious smells in a garage
Final Thoughts: If Your Kitten Keeps Sneezing
Call your veterinarian and report and describe any kitten sneezing.
Most kittens recover from sneezing, often with the help of some minor veterinary supportive care and medications.
Make sure you are not waiting for this problem to simply get worse — please don’t let a mild sneeze develop into a serious problem.
- Litster, Annette, BVSc, PhD. “Treatment of Infectious Upper Respiratory Tract Disease: An Evidence-Based Approach.” American Association of Feline Practitioners. 2017.
- Lappin, Michael R., DVM, PhD, DACVIM, et al. “Antimicrobial Guidelines for Treatment of Respiratory Tract Disease in Dogs and Cats.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 31, no. 2 (March 2017): 279–294. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28185306/.
- Brooks, Wendy, DVM, DipABVP. “Upper Respiratory Infection in Cats.” VIN. http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=613&S=4&SourceID=42&EVetID=300145.