There is nothing like lying on the couch on a cold winter day and watching TV with your new kitten sitting on you chest and purring. She gets up to rub her head on your chin, then she pauses for a dramatic moment, looks you right in the eye, and lets fly with a great big juicy sneeze all over your face. The sneezes continue and for the next few days it seems like every time you see her she is having a sneezing fit.
Congratulations, your kitten has the sneezies, or more scientifically, a viral upper respiratory tract infection. This is a common problem with cats, especially young ones. There are actually several different viruses that produce nearly identical symptoms, but because the treatment options are the same for all of them we rarely try to sort out exactly which one is causing the problem.
Only brief exposure to a sick cat or an area where a sick cat has sneezed is enough for another cat to pick up the disease, but fortunately for everyone else these viruses are very cat specific and will not infect dogs or people, or pocket gophers or any other species you may be concerned about.
After a cat is exposed there is a period of about four or five days known as the latent period where the viruses are brewing but not causing clinical signs. At the end of the latent period a cat will often spike a fever for about 24 hours and will lay around feeling rotten and not wanting to do much (which looks different from the normal just plain lazy and not wanting to do much). When the fever breaks the cat usually feels better but then the sneezing begins in earnest, usually lasting one to two weeks. These viruses target the lining of the nose and sometimes the surface of the eyes. An affected cat will have long and frequent sneezing fits, but will often be eating and drinking normally and otherwise feeling pretty good. Sometimes the lining of the nose get so roughed up that the cat will start sneezing little bloody droplets. That usually results in the appearance of a mini murder scene all along your walls about four inches off the ground, a phenomenon that can be very upsetting owners, but one that will resolve on its own as the sneezies abate. Occasionally a cat will become very ill from the virus and require hospitalization and supportive care until she is well enough to support herself again.
One of the more common viruses, feline herpes virus, (which is not associated in any way with human herpes virus) has a tendency to affect the eyes as well as the nose. The inside of the eyelids of cats with herpes will often be very red and swollen, and they will often be squinting as well as sneezing. When the eyes are involved it usually starts in one eye and as that one gets better the other one starts up. Cats with affected eyes should be seen by their veterinarian because they could develop uncommon but potentially severe problems if they are not addressed early.
When you bring your sneezing cat to the veterinarian we commonly put them on some sort of antibiotic. The truth of the matter is that the antibiotic will have no effect whatsoever on the virus, but it should help to ward off secondary bacterial infections from lurking opportunists that are just waiting to pile on and complicate the picture. That means that you should not expect the antibiotics to make the sneezing go away because that will only happen when the cat’s immune system gains the upper hand on the virus. In the instances when the cat seems to get better immediately after starting antibiotics I would love to claim credit for fixing them, but the fact of the matter is the cat was probably about to get better anyway.
Be prepared for all the cats in your household to start sneezing about five days after their exposure to the first sneezer. In theory quarantining new or sneezing cats until symptoms are resolved is a good idea. In reality it usually doesn’t matter how careful you are, the viruses are so contagious that they are nearly impossible to contain. When other cats are affected they may have more severe or less severe signs than the original patient. It is completely variable how each individual will be affected. My general rule is that if the cat is eating, drinking, and otherwise acting normally you can usually just grit you teeth and wait it out. When they are feeling sick, their eyes are affected, or they are making you feel nervous then they should be seen by the vet.