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My cat has sneezing fits and a runny nose, and nothing my vet gives me seems to help

Dear Siouxsie, Thomas and Dahlia:
I am so confused over what to do about my cat's problems that my head is spinning. I was a surgical vet tech so you would think I could figure this out on my own, but it's not working. I have a 13-year-old female spayed housecat that I received as a kitten, she has always had all her shots, been tested for feline leukemia, and has never been allowed outside. She has always been a little wheezy, but we live in Louisville, Kentucky, and almost all the people that live here in the Ohio River Valley are a little wheezy.

She has been healthy all of her life until the past month or so. She is sneezing a lot, multiple sneezes in a row, and I can see clear mucus leaking out of her nose. I have taken her to the veterinarian twice. The first time, they gave me Clavamox and chlorpheneramine; they also told me she had a mild heart murmur that was normal for cats her age. I took her back 2 weeks later when the meds were gone. I saw some slight improvement on medication, but not much. They gave her a shot of prednisone (a steroid) and another antibiotic. I definitely saw some improvement but it didn't last. I called them today and got the distinct impression that I was bothering them. I was told that lots of people in this area have allergies, and so do cats. (This is not true, by the way. Cats are not allergic in the same proportion as humans; they can be allergic but its not as prevalent as it is in people.) They told me to give her half of a 4 mg. chlorpheneramine tab twice daily. This did absolutely nothing.

Since this was now a chronic problem, I gave her a physical. She weighs 10 pounds, her coat is shiny and healthy, her gums and teeth are in good condition except that she is missing her left front canine. The tooth seems to have broken about halfway but it is hard to tell as the gum has completely healed over it. Pressing on the gum, you can feel the tooth underneath but there is no abscess or pus or blood, and it seems to be causing her no discomfort. Since it appears this happened long ago, I don't think it's connected to the sneezing.

I am reluctant to take her back to the vet. The minute I point out the broken tooth they will want to pull it, and I'm concerned about the risk of anesthesia on a 13-year-old cat with a heart murmur. Meanwhile, the sneezing continues. She is not running a temperature. The antihistamine is making her sleepy but that's about it. What do I do? I have read a little on the web about feline herpes virus and that l-lysine can be useful in helping to treat this chronic condition. But I'm not sure what condition I'm treating (and neither is the vet). Help!

~Jeanette

Siouxsie: Well, Jeanette, you do have a mystery on your hands. But we think we can offer you a few suggestions. Of course, we're not veterinarians, and we're certainly not going to attempt to make a diagnosis. But we will tell you what Mama would do if she were in this situation.

Thomas: You mentioned that your kitty has been tested for feline leukemia, but you didn't say whether or not she had been tested for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Cats with FIV tend to get infections that clear up when treated with antibiotics, but as soon as the antibiotics are discontinued, the symptoms reappear. Cats with FIV can appear healthy until their bodies are overwhelmed by bacteria or viruses, at which point they become very sick, very quickly.

Dahlia: Our great-great-great grandpa kitty, Castor, had FIV. Mama and her family didn't know it until Castor kept getting infections in his mouth that came back every time antibiotics were stopped. This was a long time ago, so the vet didn't think to test for FIV until pretty late in the game.

Siouxsie: Cats with FIV can stay healthy for a very long time as long as they're well taken care of. It's not an immediate death sentence like leukemia or feline infectious peritonitis. If your cat does have FIV, we'd recommend additional nutrition support in order to keep her as healthy as possible. And of course, if she even so much as sneezes, that's a good reason for a trip to the vet. A holistic veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist can help you make sure she gets all the supplements she needs.

Thomas: Of course, it's quite possible that your cat has been tested for FIV and found negative. In this case, you'll need to start searching for other solutions. You say that a lot of people in your geographical area are sneezy and wheezy; that tells us that there are a lot of allergens in the area or that there is a large amount of environmental pollution.

Dahlia: Although cats may not develop allergies in the same proportion as people -- and the allergies cats and other animals develop tend to manifest as food allergies or skin eruptions rather than sneezing and wheezing -- it is possible for cats to have allergies. Some cats even develop asthma.

Siouxsie: Cats are also very chemically sensitive. Our sense of smell is much stronger than people's, and being small and close to the ground, we have a lot more exposure to certain chemicals than you do.

Thomas: No matter what's causing your cat's symptoms, we'd recommend clearing the air. Discontinue the use of any chemical air fresheners (plug-ins, diffusers, sprays, etc.) or spray-on carpet or fabric deodorizers. Use unscented laundry detergent and avoid using dryer sheets unless you can find unscented ones.

Dahlia: We're sure there are no smokers in your home, but if on the off chance someone in your house does smoke, perhaps you can limit that person's smoking to outdoors or to one room of the house. Sometimes smokers get uptight about that sort of thing, but we say this: If you had a human child who was having respiratory problems, wouldn't you stop smoking inside for the sake of your kid's health? Why not do the same for your animal friends?

Siouxsie: When Sinéad and I were kittens, Mama used to smoke, but it made us sneeze and wheeze, so she stopped smoking indoors. This was in Maine, in the middle of the winter. She decided that as a responsible pet caretaker, it was better for her to shiver outdoors if she had to smoke than to smoke inside and make all of us sick.

Thomas: If you use a scented cat litter, we'd recommend that you switch to an unscented one. Perhaps you can use a plant-based litter rather than a clay-based one; Mama uses a clumping kitty litter made of corn; it has a naturally sweet smell and is very good at keeping odors at bay. And we love the texture. It's soft on our paws!

Dahlia: You can also use baking soda in the litterbox for further non-chemical deodorizing.

Siouxsie: Another thing you can do to clear the air is to purchase an air purifier. These machines range from basic models to high-end devices with HEPA filters and ionizers We'd recommend that you at least invest in an air purifier with a HEPA filter. You'll be amazed at the good it does -- and if you have allergies it'll help you feel better too!

Thomas: If you do buy an air purifier, do your research first. As we said, quality and price vary greatly. It's worth the money to pay for a good model and keep it maintained by cleaning or replacing the filters as necessary.

Siouxsie: We haven't read anything about l-lysine in regards to treating feline herpes virus, but we do agree that you shouldn't begin medicating your cat with anything (drugs, vitamins, or herbal/homeopathic remedies) until you know what condition you're treating.

Thomas: Maybe you should seek out another veterinary opinion. It sounds like you may be less than satisfied with your current veterinary clinic's treatment philosophy, and it couldn't hurt to ask other cat-owning friends who their vet is and what they think of that person. Most vets won't be offended by a patient wanting a second opinion on a chronic problem; if your vet is upset by this, it's one more reason to find a new vet.

Dahlia: Another option would be to locate a holistic veterinarian in your area, or one who does consultations by phone (as long as your vet is willing to provide your cat's records to that person).

Siouxsie: Holistic veterinarians almost always have DVM or VMD (veterinary doctor, for those of our readers who aren't vet techs) degrees; however they have pursued education in other forms of treatment including fields such as herbalism, homeopathy, nutrition, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, or massage.

Thomas: Mama knows several people whose animal friends have developed chronic health problems that have been managed successfully with a combination of standard and holistic vet care. She says that if one of us developed a chronic condition, she'd work with a holistic vet in addition to our regular vet to make sure we stayed as healthy as possible.

Dahlia: The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association has a list of its member practitioners all over the US and Canada. This is not an exhaustive list, because there are plenty of holistic vets who may not be part of that organization. But it would be a place to start.

Siouxsie: You can also get recommendations from people who practice holistic medicine for humans; often these people know of one another because humans who use holistic health care for themselves usually want the same for their animals.

Thomas: Good luck, Jeanette. Please let us know how things go.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.