Nasal Discharge and Sneezing in Cats

Cats with nasal discharge, “snuffly” breathing, snoring noises when asleep or awake, sneezing and sometimes gagging, are suffering from disease affecting the nose and/or throat. Signs that have been ongoing for more than 3 weeks are termed ‘chronic’, but many cats have problems for weeks to months, often with a variable response to treatment, before full investigations are carried out.

There are many possible causes of nasal discharge and sneezing in cats

There are many possible causes of nasal discharge and sneezing in cats

What causes nasal discharge and sneezing in cats?

There are many causes of nasal disease. The feline ‘flu viruses (herpesvirus and calicivirus), will commonly cause sneezing and discharge from the eyes and/or nose. There may also be a high temperature and loss of appetite. However the signs from these infections are usually short lived.

For recurrent or long-standing nasal discharge, antibiotics are often prescribed initially. However it is unusual for a bacterial infection to be the primary problem. There may be improvement with antibiotics as they will reduce secondary infection, but the signs are likely to recur when antibiotics are stopped. It is still important to address secondary infection though as, if it is left untreated, deep-seated infection in the bone (‘osteomyelitis’) may develop if the patient is unlucky.

Some primary causes of nasal discharge and sneezing in cats…

  • Rhinitis (benign inflammation)
  • Foreign body (often a grass blade)
  • Fungal infection (uncommon)
  • Benign polyp (an abnormal growth of tissue projecting from a mucous membrane)
  • Tumour
  • Severe dental disease
  • Scar tissue narrowing the back of the nose

How will my vet investigate nasal discharge in my cat?

Your vet will want to know what type of discharge is present, as clear or yellow/green discharge is usual but if there is fresh (red) or old (brown) blood, this may suggest that a fungal infection or tumour is more likely.

This grass awn, which was in a cat’s nose, caused nasal discharge and sneezing

This grass awn, which was in a cat’s nose, caused nasal discharge and sneezing

Your vet may also want to know if the discharge is from one side of the nose or both sides, as tumours and foreign bodies typically affect one side only, whereas rhinitis usually affects both sides. It is important to tell your vet if your cat has stopped eating as this may be a sign of pain or an indication of a tumour.

Examination will usually include your vet assessing airflow through your cat’s nostrils by holding up a thin strand of cotton wool and looking for movement, or seeing if condensation forms on a shiny surface held close to your cat’s nose.

Your vet’s initial investigations are likely to include examination of your pet’s teeth, nose and throat under anaesthetic. A ‘polyp’ may be visible this way, and grass blades can sometimes be grabbed and removed quite easily if part of them is visible just inside the nostril or at the throat.

X-rays can be useful to look for tumours or destruction of the fine bone structure in the nose. Where available, computed tomography (CT) scanning gives even better detail than an X-ray. Endoscopy is very useful as this allows direct visualisation of your cat’s throat and nasal passages. Short or well embedded foreign bodies are visible with this technique and can be removed. Nasal tissue biopsies can also be collected with the aid of endoscopy, and biopsies are helpful to confirm rhinitis and essential to diagnose a tumour.

What treatment options are there?

Non-specific treatments such as steam inhalation and applying saline drops into the nostrils can help to loosen and clear discharge from the nasal passages. Other treatments will depend on the specific underlying cause:

Most cats do not object to saline drops applied into the nostrils

Most cats do not object to saline drops being applied into the nostrils

  • Rhinitis cannot be cured, but can usually be managed with a combination of anti-inflammatories and intermittent antibiotics. In many cases anti-inflammatory treatments may be best administered topically, via nasal drops or an inhaler as is used for asthma
  • Fungal infection can be cured but treatment may take many months to be effective, and sometimes surgery is required to instil anti-fungal solution and cream into the sinuses
  • Polyps can be removed with gentle pulling, but recurrence is possible. Surgery to address the primary site of growth in the middle ear is likely to result in permanent resolution
  • Some tumours may respond to treatment, but sadly others are untreatable


Some causes of chronic nasal disease in cats can be cured, others can only be managed. However with appropriate investigations and treatment, a good quality of life should be achievable in the majority of patients.