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Rhinitis and Sinusitis in Cats


Ned F. Kuehn

, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Michigan Veterinary Specialists

Last full review/revision Aug 2018 | Content last modified Aug 2018

Rhinitis is inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose. Sinusitis is inflammation of the lining of the sinuses. Rhinitis and sinusitis often occur together, which is termed rhinosinusitis. Inflammation or other damage to the nasal mucous membranes are common upper respiratory tract disorders in cats. If the nasal passages deteriorate and fail to function properly, a major filtration function is removed. This exposes the lungs to much heavier loads of dust and micro-organisms.

Viral infection is the most common cause of sudden rhinitis or sinusitis in cats. Feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calcivirus are most frequently involved. Infection with bacteria frequently occurs after the initial viral infection. Allergic rhinitis or sinusitis can occur seasonally (if due to pollen production) or year-round (if due to indoor allergens, such as house dusts and molds). In cats, chronic nasal and sinus inflammation frequently occurs following severe acute viral infections of the nasal and sinus mucous membranes. Fungal nasal and sinus inflammation may be caused by the fungi Cryptococcus neoformans (relatively common in cats) or Aspergillus subspecies and Penicillium subspecies (both relatively rare in cats).

Signs of rhinitis include nasal discharge, sneezing, pawing at the face, snoring, open-mouth breathing, and labored inhalation. Tears and inflammation of the membrane surrounding the eyes (conjunctivitis) often accompany inflammation of the upper respiratory passages. The nasal discharge is clear but may become mucus-like as a result of secondary bacterial infection. Sneezing may be frequent, or it may come and go in cases of chronic rhinitis. Affected cats may also experience an aspiration reflex (“reverse sneeze”), a short rapid inhalation in an attempt to clear the nose. A cat with fungal rhinitis may develop a lump on the bridge of its nose.

Diagnosis is based on the cat’s history, physical examination, x-rays, computed tomography (CT), rhinoscopy (endoscopy of the nose), nasal biopsy, and elimination of other causes of nasal discharge and sneezing. However, these tests cannot always confirm the cause of disease.

In mild or acute cases, treatment to relieve signs may be effective. Severe cases of rhinosinusitis in kittens or adult cats may require intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, and nutritional support via a feeding tube to maintain weight. The veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics if secondary bacterial rhinosinusitis is present or suspected. (Antibiotics are not effective against viruses.) In general, chronic rhinosinusitis is a frustrating disease to manage, and cures are rare. Fungal rhinosinusitis can be treated with antifungal therapy once the particular fungal cause has been identified. Surgery may be recommended for animals that do not respond to medical therapy, although the results are often disappointing.

Also see professional content regarding rhinitis and sinusitis.

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