Cat Sneezing with Watery Eyes: A Veterinarian Explains What to Do

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  • Why do cats’ eyes water? 

    If you notice that your cat has watery eyes, this can indicate a range of issues from a cold, allergies, or foreign material in the eye like dust or grass seeds. 

    In healthy animals, the tear film on the eye serves multiple functions – it lubricates the surface of the eye, it helps get rid of debris, and provides the eye’s surface with nutrients and healing factors. 

    An overproduction of tears or watery eyes can be a reaction to an allergen like pollen or dust, but it can also be due to infections, injury, or even blocked tear ducts. Often though watery eyes and respiratory issues like allergies and infections go hand in hand. 

    Signs your cat is having problems with his eyes or nose

    1. Glassy or watery-looking eyes
    2. Blinking excessively or squinting
    3. Itchy eyes
    4. Red and inflamed eyes
    5. Yellow or green discharge
    6. Pain including rubbing, pawing, squinting
    7. Swelling
    8. Nasal discharge

    cat with nasal discharge
    Cat with nasal discharge

    9. Sneezing

    Most common disorders causing watery eyes & sneezing in cats

    Unfortunately, the symptoms of the common bacterial and viral causes are all very similar. There may be tests your vet can perform to help diagnose a particular condition; other times they rely on improvement with certain medications to determine the cause. For example, if antibiotics don’t help, but antivirals do, then it is likely a virus causing the problem. 

    1. Allergies (environmental or food-related): Allergies in cats typically show up as skin issues, but can sometimes cause eye-related symptoms as well. This Cat-World article talks about common household cat allergies. Environmental allergens are more likely to cause respiratory and eye symptoms; food allergies typically result in skin symptoms.
    2. Feline Herpesvirus: Herpesvirus is the most common viral cause of eye issues in cats. Some researchers suggest 80% of cats worldwide are carriers of this virus. They often display no symptoms unless under stress (surgery, illness, general stress), and can then spread the disease via nasal and eye secretions or by mouth. In adult cats, the recurrence of eye symptoms can affect one or both eyes.
    3. Bordetella infection: Bordetella is common bacterial infection in young cats and is often seen at the same time as viral infections. It is spread through saliva, nasal, and eye secretions, and infected cats can shed the bacteria for months. Dogs and immunocompromised people are also susceptible to this bacteria as well.
    4. Feline Chlamydia: This a bacterial infection also seen in younger cats, although any cat can be effected. It is spread by close contact with other cats.
    5. Feline Calicivirus: This virus is fairly common in young shelter cats. Symptoms include sneezing and eye discharge, as well as some mouth ulcers.
    6. Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV): Unfortunately this virus can actually lead to certain types of eye cancers in cats, but thanks to vaccination, the number of cats infected with FeLV is decreasing.

    When should I seek veterinary care?

    How do you know if your cat just has a cold? Just like people, cats can occasionally get watery eyes and sneezing that resolve without medication or other interventions. To help you determine if you should take your cat to the vet consider these points: 

    • Does my cat have a normal appetite and energy? If yes, then you can probably monitor the situation a bit longer. 
    • Is he coughing or wheezing? If yes, allergies or a respiratory infection might be the cause. Have your vet take a look.
    • Is he rubbing his face on furniture or scratching at his eyes? Or is he squinting and not able to keep his eye fully open? This might indicate the eye is painful and warrants a trip to the vet. Some of the mentioned viruses can cause eye changes like corneal ulcers that will need treatment. 
    • Is there yellow or green discharge from the eyes? Or any redness on the eye’s surface? If yes, there may be an infection that needs antibiotics or other eye medications.

    What to expect at the vet visit

    Because eye issues can change and worsen quickly, it is very important to get your cat to the vet if you have any concerns about his eyes. Your veterinarian will do a thorough exam of your cat. While they may focus on the eyes, they are also assessing overall health to look for other causes like respiratory infections. 

    Typically your vet will perform a test called a fluorescein eye stain. This is a greenish-yellow dye that is put in the eyes to help identify scratches to the surface of the eye. 

    (Tip from your vet – Don’t panic if you see a bit of this dye come out of your cat’s nose! There is a duct that runs from the inner corner of the eye and opens into the nose. This is totally normal!) 

    This test is often vital in determining which medications to use, if any, on your cat’s eyes. For example, if there is a scratch on the surface of the eye (cornea), we do not want to put steroid eye drops in them since this can actually make the corneal scratch much worse. If the stain indicates no scratch, then your veterinarian may recommend a non-medicated or antibiotic eye drop or ointment. 

    In cases where your vet suspects an underlying virus that is causing infection and eye symptoms, there are various anti-viral medications that may help curb a viral flare-up. 

    How to help your cat at home

    • Remove allergens: This can be difficult if the allergen is unknown, but vacuuming dust and minimizing pollen exposure can help.
    • Cone: A cone may be an inconvenience but it helps prevent your cat from scratching his eye and causing further trauma to the eye or surrounding skin. 
    • Medications: Continue any medications as prescribed by your veterinarian,  including eye drops and pain medication.
    • Humidifier: In sneezing cats, occasionally a humidifier can help keep the airways moist. Just make sure you are not using any essential oils since some are toxic to cats (tea tree, wintergreen, peppermint, ylang ylang).
    • Make sure your cat is up-to-date on vaccinations: Your veterinarian can help tailor a specific vaccine schedule to your cat and his lifestyle and risks. The American Association of Feline Practitioners routinely publishes their recommendations for core and non-core vaccines, but assessing your cat’s particular needs is important to keeping him in happy and healthy shape.

    While your feline companion may just have a slight cold, if he becomes lethargic, not eating, wheezing, or the eyes are getting worse, it is best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. The sooner the problem can be addressed, the sooner your cat will feel like his normal healthy self.



    • Dr Sarah Graves

      Dr. Sarah Graves has been a veterinarian for almost 10 years and graduated from one of the leading veterinarian schools in the world: the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London.