When you start sneezing, it’s usually easy to pinpoint the cause. Maybe that nasty cold you caught from a co-worker who came to the office last week, for example, or an allergy to the dust bunnies lingering under your bed.  

It can be harder to figure out, however, what's making your cat sneeze.

Since a sniffling feline can’t tell you what’s wrong, our tips can help you figure out the reason for the sneezing, how you can help your pet feel better, and when to visit the vet.

Can Cats Have Allergies?

When your cat sneezes it's not usually because of a true allergy, but because she just had a reaction to the same environmental irritants that bother us, such as perfrume or even dust from her litter box, says Tomeshia Hubbard, D.V.M., a clinical professor of veterinary dermatology at Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama.

When cats do have allergic reactions, to things such as pollen, ragweed, mold, or dust, the reactions usually appear on their skin as redness, bumps, hair loss, or crusty, scaly areas, Hubbard says.  

When to see the vet: Just as some people aren’t bothered enough by their allergies to seek treatment, your cat's allergies may be minor and require no intervention.

Make an appointment for your pet, however, if she has any of the skin symptoms mentioned above and is also scratching and licking herself more often than usual.

Your vet will perform a few tests to rule out parasites or ringworm, or an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria.

If the vet determines that an allergy is likely causing your cat’s rash, skin or blood tests can pinpoint the specific allergens that are provoking a response.

What you can do: For contact allergies to substances such as cotton, wool, or feathers, keep kitty away from items that contain them.

Flea allergy is one of the most common allergies in cats; a topical medication from the vet applied monthly can repel the tiny critters.

If allergies are severe, weekly allergy shots are also an option, though it can be six to 12 months before they take full effect.

Your vet can also prescribe antihistamines for minor itching, or steroids for severe itching.

Steroids, however, should only be used short term, because of possible side effects, such as excessive eating, drinking, and urination, as well as increased susceptibility to infections.

Whether it's allergies or another condition, never give your pet a medication that’s meant for a human.

Michael Blackwell, D.V.M., senior director of veterinary policy for the Humane Society of the United States, warns that although some veterinary drugs are the same or similar to those for people, dosage size and frequency are often different, and doses appropriate for us can be fatal to our furry friends.

What About Infections?

If you see your cat sneeze and she also has symptoms such as congestion, coughing, or watery eyes, an infection may be to blame.

As in humans, those infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria. And, also as in humans, antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria—and overusing antibiotics in any setting can breed superbugs, or bacteria that are resistant to the the drugs.

When to see the vet: If your cat is sneezing, it generally makes sense to wait for a week or two to see if the symptoms clear up on their own.

If not, a trip to the vet is worthwhile to see if antibiotics are needed, or if some other kind viral infection, such as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), may be a cause, says Mark Verdino, D.V.M., chief of veterinary staff at North Shore Animal League America.  

What you can do: If your cat does have that viral condition, it can sometimes wax and wane through her life. But you can help keep it under control by making sure she's vaccinated against FVR. That can reduce severity of symptoms even in cats already exposed to the disease. 

Staying up to date on vaccines can also help protect against other diseases, and is especially important if your cat has spent time in shelters, where infections are common and easily spread. The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers a full set of guidelines; you can also check with your vet about the shots your cat needs.

Two other steps may also help your cat avoid infections:

• Consider limiting your cat’s outdoor time. Cats contract many infections through contact with other pets and wildlife. Less time roaming free means a reduced risk of encountering pathogens.

• Take care of your cat’s oral health. If brushing your cat’s teeth sounds like too much, add dry food to her diet, which can help scrub teeth. Infections can enter the mouth and nose via dirty teeth, according to Verdino.

Can My Cat Make Me Sick?

Yes. Here, two of the most common infections cats can spread to humans:

Toxoplasmosis. Healthy people infected with this parasite, which can be present in cats’ feces, usually have no symptoms.

But people with compromised immune systems can experience brain or eye damage, so they should stay away from litter boxes.

Pregnant women should avoid litter boxes as well, because toxoplasmosis can cause serious birth defects.

Ringworm. This skin disease is caused by a fungus and marked by a round rash that can lead to a bald patch on your pet’s coat.

If you suspect ringworm, take your cat to the vet and have any other pets checked as well.

People with immune deficiencies should be especially careful to avoid touching an animal infected with ringworm.

If you’re infected with ringworm, you can treat it with an over-the-counter topical antifungal medication. For an infection on your scalp, see your doctor for a prescription antifungal medication.