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Nasal Discharge and Sneezing in Dogs and Cats: What’s Normal and What’s Not

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It’s that time of year for us humans: cold and flu season, where you hear sneezing and sniffling throughout your workplace and home. But what does it mean if your dog or cat starts to sneeze or has a runny nose? What’s considered normal and what’s not? Here’s what pet owners need to know:

What’s Normal:
• An occasional sneeze from your dog or cat is a normal bodily process that is caused by irritation within the nostrils.
• Dogs and cats will sometimes “reverse sneeze” when the nasal passageways are irritated. This is when a dog or cat extends their head or neck and forcefully inhales through the nose, causing a honking noise. Reverse sneezes can happen 2-3 times in a row.

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What’s Not Normal:

  • A sudden increase in sneezing or if the sneezing won’t stop. This can indicate that something could be stuck in your pet’s nose or that there is an underlying disease process that is causing inflammation or infection.
  • During the summertime, we often see dogs that sneeze after inhaling plant awn, a grass blade, or a similar foreign object. When these objects get lodged within the nares, they can cause pain, irritation, and infection. Sometimes there is green, yellow, or bloody discharge from one nostril (more than the other nostril). Sometimes these nasal foreign bodies can be seen during a sedated nasal examination and other times, these irritants can be so small that advanced imaging such as a CT scan is needed to identify the object for removal.

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  • Frequent sneezing (multiple times per day) or green, yellow, or bloody discharge coming from both nostrils can also indicate other types of infection. For example, upper respiratory infections caused by contagious viruses or bacteria may cause the green or yellow/mucoid discharge. Cats are particularly susceptible to upper respiratory infections if they live in a group setting (such as a shelter) or if there is a newly adopted cat in the household. These infections can range from mild to severe and can have other symptoms such as eye discharge or swelling, as well as decreased appetite. Sometimes these infections can be cleared naturally by the immune system but some animals develop more serious pneumonia or secondary infections. If you are concerned about an upper respiratory infection, please speak with your family veterinarian.
  • Bleeding from the nose is NOT normal, especially if the bleeding won’t stop. This warrants immediate veterinary attention. This could be a sign of more serious types of fungal disease, bleeding abnormalities, or even certain types of cancer. Nosebleeds that won’t stop should be seen right away by your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital before the blood loss becomes severe. Bloodwork may be recommended to assess your dog or cat’s platelet count or blood clotting abilities. If there are no bleeding abnormalities, advanced imaging or biopsies may be necessary to identify if there is a fungal disease or cancer present within the nasal canal.

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If you are concerned about your cat or dog’s sneezing or nasal discharge, contact your family veterinarian to set up an appointment. If your family veterinarian is unavailable and your pet is experiencing an emergency such as a nosebleed that won’t stop, both our St. Paul and Oakdale clinics are open 24/7, every day of the year.

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