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Sniffly, Sneezy,”Snuffler” Cats

April 16, 2019

This week’s topic comes to us by request, which is a good opportunity to remind everyone that you can always request or suggest a topic you’d like to know more about!

A fairly common problem we see in cats is formally called chronic rhinitis/sinusitis but informally often called “sniffly cats” or “snuffler cats.” These are cats who struggle with chronic, recurrent nasal (and sometimes sinus) infections. Symptoms include intermittent, recurrent episodes of nasal discharge, sneezing, noisy breathing, lower energy and/or appetite, and sometimes runny eyes.

Let’s take a step back and talk about anatomy for a minute. The nasal passages contain structures nasal turbinates. Turbinates are made of folds of bone and tissue rich in blood vessels and coated in a thin film of mucus and tiny hair-like projections called cilia. The function of the turbinates is to increase the surface area for air to be warmed, humidified, and filtered (trapping and removing dust particles, allergens, bacteria, etc) on its way to the lungs. This is a key part of the body’s system to protect the respiratory system against infection and irritation.

Some of the common upper respiratory viruses that cats are commonly exposed to when they are kittens (most notably Feline Calicivirus and Feline Herpes Virus) can damage the turbinates, causing blunting, loss of cilia, and scarring. If this happens on a large scale, the turbinates can become a place for mucus, irritants, and bacteria to collect and fester instead of being removed. This environment allows bacteria to multiply, causing bacterial infections

We can treat infections as they come up with antibiotics, but in most cases we cannot permanently eliminate problems because the anatomy and defenses of these cats’ nasal passages are not normal and they continue to be vulnerable to infections. If your cat struggles with chronic rhinitis, there are some things that may help minimize how often your cat develops infections:

  1. People with chronic sinus problems often do nasal flushes regularly or at the first sign of a problem. This is obviously not practical to do at home with cats. However, for severely affected cats we may recommend periodically sedating your cat to do a thorough nasal flush (usually just 1-2 times/year at most). This is not a permanent solution, but can help stretch out the time between infections in cats who can’t get relief with less aggressive management.
  2. At home, you can try using a plain (non-medicated) saline nasal spray (available over the counter at any drugstore) if your cat tolerates it. It will help thin any “stuck” mucus and often stimulates sneezing, which helps expel mucus and bacteria. Tip the bottle upside down to drip 1-2 drops onto each nostril. During an active infection, this can be done once to twice daily. In between infections, you can try a few times a week or as needed for your individual cat.
  3. Increased water intake helps keep mucus thinner, which reduces how much it may clump or get stuck on the damaged turbinates. We can choose to drink more water, but we can’t explain to our cats why it would be beneficial for them to do so. Dr. Jen Seidl wrote an excellent blog post on encouraging water intake in cats that you can read here: (Click me.)
  4. Humidification during cold, dry weather can help decrease irritation to the nasal passages and keep mucus from drying out.
  5. There are a few acupressure points around the face and nose that can encourage drainage from the sinuses and nasal passages. LI 20 is right next to the the nose just above the top of the nostril (in a tolerant cat you can feel a small divot in the exact spot) and BL 2 is straight up from the inner corner of the eye, at the inner corner of the brow ridge. See below for a picture. Apply firm, gentle pressure to the spot with the tip of a finger for 5-10 seconds, repeating 2-3 times or as your cat tolerates. Treat both left and right sides for best effects.
  6. A medication that we usually use to treat vomiting and prevent motion sickness called Cerenia may help reduce nasal congestion in some cats. Personally I have found the results to be extremely variable, but in many cases it is worth a try.
  7. For some cats who have frequent infections, we may develop a plan for what is called “pulse antibiotics” where we treat on a schedule. Due to concerns about antibiotic overuse and resistance, this is an option we reserve for very stubborn or severe cases.
  8. Occasionally, anti-viral medications may help. In most cases, the original viral infection is long gone and we are dealing with the aftermath, but Feline Herpes Virus is the exception. Like our cold sore virus, FHV is never completely eliminated from the body and may flare up seasonally or during times of stress. Usually it just causes eye irritation and runny eyes, but occasionally may contribute to episodes of rhinitis.

Chronic rhinitis can be frustrating in cats, but together we can work to figure out a plan to keep your cat as comfortable as possible and reduce the number of episodes requiring antibiotic treatment. As usual, if you have any questions please call the clinic to speak to one of our doctors.

Karen Christopherson DVM CVA

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