What is a reverse sneeze in cats?
The first time you see it, you’re sure your cat is choking. Or having trouble breathing. You’re ready to rush her to the emergency vet when just as suddenly, the behavior stops. Your cat continues on her merry way, like nothing unusual happened, while you’re still holding your heart.
This behavior, for future reference, is probably a reverse sneeze.
The reverse sneeze is not only a perfectly normal cat behavior, it’s actually a healthy one. It’s part of your cat’s natural defense system that keeps things that don’t belong in your cat’s nose, throat, or lungs, out.
What does a reverse sneeze look and sound like?
Reverse sneezing can easily be mistaken for choking, coughing, hyperventilating, or even hacking up a big hairball.
Just before a reverse sneeze, a cat will likely close his eyes, extend his neck, and possibly draw back his lips.
What follows is what gets loving cat guardians running to their veterinarians: snorting, gasping, honking, and wheezing. Within a few seconds, however, it’s all over.
There’s nothing like video to show you exactly what I mean (skip ahead to 0:30):
Why do cats reverse sneeze?
Cats reverse sneeze for the same reason they sneeze the ordinary way, and for the same reason humans and other animals sneeze: to get something out of their nasal passages that doesn’t belong there.
It starts with a tickle or an irritation of some kind in the nose or throat. It could be dust, pollen, smoke, or even a virus that has worked its way inside. But the cells lining the nasal passages are on guard. They quickly send a message to the brain.
The brain has a system for ridding the nasal passages of stuff that doesn’t belong there: the sneeze. A regular sneeze is an explosive rush of air designed to blow the offending particle out of the cat.
In a regular sneeze, the vocal cords shut tight, letting air pressure build up in the chest. When pressure is sufficient, the vocal cords open suddenly, and a giant burst of air escapes through the nose and mouth.
With any luck, the sneeze will dislodge the unwelcome visitor to your cat’s nasal passages.
How is a reverse sneeze different from a regular sneeze?
In a regular sneeze, a rush of air heads out of the cat’s body. In a reverse sneeze, the cat rapidly sucks air in. But the purpose of the reverse sneeze is same: to get junk out of the nose and throat.
The mechanism is different, too. In a reverse sneeze, the soft palate, the mushy area at the very back of the roof of a cat’s mouth, starts spasming. The spasms are designed to rapidly pull air through the nose into the windpipe.
But in a reverse sneeze, the brain has told the windpipe to tighten or narrow, preventing too much air from coming in all at once. The result is a kind of huffing motion as the cat tries to force air through.
Why would a cat reverse sneeze instead of sneeze the regular way?
A cat’s brain will decide which kind of sneeze is called for, depending upon the location of the thing that has gotten into her nasal passages.
If the irritation is all the way at the back of the nasal passage, where it connects with the mouth and windpipe, a cat will reverse sneeze.
If the irritation is in the front of the nasal passage, the cat’s brain will produce an ordinary sneeze.
Is a reverse sneeze dangerous?
The reverse sneeze is a normal, healthy reflex. It’s part of a cat’s natural defense system that helps keep him safe.
Dogs do it, too. In fact, it’s more common in dogs than in cats.
Humans, however, don’t reverse sneeze, possibly because of the shape of our nasal and throat passages.
But read below to learn about when you should be concerned about a reverse sneeze, or a behavior that is masquerading as a reverse sneeze.
Are some cats more prone to reverse sneeze than others?
Yes. Cats (and dogs) who have short snouts, small nasal openings, a long, soft palate, and a naturally narrow windpipe, are more likely to reverse sneeze than in cats with more typical anatomy.
Altogether, these features are known as “brachycephalic syndrome,” and it’s most common in Persian cats. Traditional Persians suffer from a wide range of health problems due to the shape of their skulls. This is the main driver behind the development of the Doll Face Persian, which has a more typical facial structure.
You can read all about the two types of Persians in The Persian Cat.
What kinds of things can cause a reverse sneeze?
Anything a cat can inhale can cause a reverse sneeze, including bits of grass, mulch, pollen, dust, cleaners, and smoke. Be aware of irritating (and possibly harmful) odor particles in your home. (See: “Are essential oils safe for cats?”)
Drinking too quickly, or eating too quickly, can also cause a reverse sneeze. Excitement can cause a reverse sneeze, too, as can a sudden temperature change.
When should I worry about a reverse sneeze?
Reverse sneezing is never a medical emergency, so long as it’s over in a few seconds, the cat acts like her old self afterwards, and it doesn’t happen constantly.
If your cat can’t stop reverse sneezing, it could be a sign that something is in the nasal passages that can’t be dislodged. This might include:
- nasal mites, which are parasites that invade a cat’s nose
- tumors, or polyps, which could cause frequent sneezing and nasal congestion
- foreign bodies, such as a blade of grass, or even a tiny bone.
Infections, illness, and allergies can also cause more chronic sneezing and coughing, including:
- dental disease, in which bacteria in the sinuses, or infection in a tooth root causes irritation
- allergies and asthma, which can narrow a cat’s airways and cause difficulty breathing
- upper respiratory infections, which can also cause hacking or wheezing
- heart disease, which can cause a buildup of fluid in the lungs, causing gasping, coughing, or retching. (Read about HCM, the most common form of heart disease in cats, here).
If your cat has any other symptoms accompanying the sneezing, such as nasal discharge, dental tartar, itchy skin, a bloody nose, or swelling of the muzzle, contact your veterinarian immediately.
(Read, “How do you know if your cat is sick?”)
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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 “The Reverse Sneeze: What It Is and When to Worry.” Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, 30 Mar. 2022, https://www.lonetreevet.com/blog/the-reverse-sneeze-what-it-is-and-when-to-worry/.
 “Reverse Sneezing in Cats - Causes, Treatment and Associated Symptoms - Vetster.”