Did you know that cats cough too? If you’ve ever experienced a cat coughing, you’ll know that it can be distressing to watch, as well as being unpleasant for your cat. While coughing is less common in cats than in some other species, such as dogs, it can be a symptom of a serious underlying condition. So, if your cat starts coughing all of a sudden, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs to look out for.
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What is coughing in cats
It’s easy to confuse coughing with retching, so let’s start by taking a look at what coughing actually is. Cat’s coughing is there to protect the respiratory tract, from the windpipe (trachea) to the lungs. If your cat is coughing, it is a protective reflex that attempts to remove anything foreign (such as dust, mucus, germs, inhaled objects, or liquids) from the airways. A chronic cough is a reflex that is also stimulated if there is any inflammation or irritation anywhere along the airway.
Apart from a dry cough, retching or gagging, on the other hand, is an attempt to vomit. It is the stomach and food pipe (esophagus) trying to bring up the stomach contents. So, while people commonly talk of cats ‘coughing’ up hairballs, this is actually retching but is not life threatening. The hairball is irritating the guts, not the airways.
To confuse things further, it isn’t uncommon for a severe bout of coughing to end in a cat throwing up, due to the pressure caused by all the coughing. A cat may also extend their neck and appear to retch after coughing.
Causes of coughing in cats
A cat’s cough is a symptom of many possible conditions, rather than being an irritation in the respiratory tract itself. While there are many possible causes of coughing, here are 5 common causes of coughing in cats:
- Respiratory Infection
Coughing can be caused by infection with viruses such as Feline Herpes Virus, or bacteria such as Bordetella. Less commonly, fungal infections can cause coughing in cats. When cat coughing is caused by an infection there are usually other symptoms too, such as sneezing.
- Feline Asthma
Asthma, otherwise known as ‘allergic airway disease’, is relatively common in cats. It usually starts in adult cats and causes short but repeated bouts of coughing, often with wheezing and fast or noisy breathing, known as asthma attacks.Veterinary medicine can help treat asthma in cats, so as pet parents, you should check-in with your vet.
- Foreign bodies
Depending on the cat’s environment, foreign objects along the airway can cause most cats to cough, for example, a blade of grass or if they breathed in some food or liquid. If this happens and a cough persists, go to the vet immediately.
Tumors anywhere in the respiratory system (throat, windpipe, and lungs), or sitting outside of the respiratory system but pushing into them, is a leading factor causing coughing in cats.
Many cats with parasites such as heartworm disease can cause your cat’s cough to persist. Unlike in dogs, heart disease rarely causes a cat coughing, although it is possible.
When to See the Vet for Your Cat’s Cough
If your cat coughs every now and then but is otherwise perfectly well in themselves, this is probably not too much to worry about. You could keep an eye on them for a couple of days, to see if it settles. If not and your cat is coughing consistently, it’s best to call your veterinarian for advice, especially if this is new or in young cats.
If your cat has any of the following urgent symptoms, then you should call your veterinarian for an appointment straight away:
- Your cat is coughing consistently
- Coughing blood
- A productive cough, bringing up mucus
- Wheezing (or asthma attacks)
- Lethargy (reduced energy)
- Reduced appetite or drinking
- Losing weight
- A change in their voice box
- Coughing for more than 2 days
The following signs should be treated as an emergency, and you need to get to your nearest veterinary or mobile vet near you clinic straight away:
- Changes in breathing (fast breathing, more effort to the breathing, or open-mouth breathing)
- Blue-tinged tongue or lips
- Noisy breathing
Remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry! If you aren’t sure, give your veterinary team a call for advice and to book an appointment.
How is coughing in cats diagnosed?
As a pet parent, you should always seek veterinary medicine and assistance if your feline companions experience a cat’s cough or show other symptoms of sickness.
Medical attention is needed if your cat coughing persists or brings respiratory infections. Get the pet care your cat needs by visiting your local vet.
Your veterinarian may be able to make a suggested diagnosis by asking you questions and physically examining your cat to find the cause of why your cat is coughing. They may initially trial some treatment based on this.
In more serious or complex cases or specific cases like an upper respiratory infection or wet cough, your veterinarian will need to run some tests. These could include:
- Blood tests
- Chest / neck x-rays
- Bronchoscopy (using a little camera to examine the airways)
- Taking samples from the airways for culture, to look for infectious causes
Your cat may need sedation or general anesthetic for some, or all, of these tests.
How do you treat coughing in cats?
The treatment for coughing will depend on the cause of your cat coughing. The good news is that many causes can be treated or managed effectively, especially when they are caught early.
Cat’s coughing, even if it is a wet cough, can have the symptoms treated with cough suppressants or anti-inflammatory drugs (to reduce swelling and irritation in the airways) can be effective.
If your cat coughing is due to a bacterial or respiratory infections, or they have developed a secondary bacterial infection as a result of another condition, then treatment would include a long course of antibiotics to clear out the respiratory tract. Anti-viral medications may also be used in some types of infection, but will help your cats cough.
If a cat cough is caused by asthma or other inflammatory conditions in the lungs is usually treated with steroids to reduce inflammation and/or bronchodilators to open up the respiratory tract. These come in various forms, but often an inhaler is best for your coughing cat.
Foreign objects can be removed using a little camera to guide a tiny retrieval instrument, or a surgery.
Your veterinarian would discuss your cat’s treatment options with you.
Take home message about a cat’s cough
A cat’s cough is a symptom of many possible conditions, rather than being a disease itself. Coughing in cats can signal something serious like respiratory infections or heartworm disease, so it’s important to as pet owners, to contact your veterinarian if your cat starts coughing. Remember, prevention is better than cure! Keeping your cat up to date with their preventatives such as vaccines and heartworm preventatives, as well as knowing any underlying condition and other signs, can help to avoid some causes of coughing in cats and work as a treatment plan.
If your cat is coughing repeatedly or productively, has any other symptoms alongside coughing, or seems unwell in themselves then you need to book an appointment with your veterinarian. Similarly, if your otherwise healthy cat has the occasional cough for more than 2 days, it’s a good idea to book a vet exam for a cats cough.
Dry coughing can be a sign of inflammation or irritation in the airways, such as with feline asthma. Only your veterinarian can diagnose the cause of a dry cough, so give them a call for an appointment.
Coughing can easily be confused with gagging, like when a cat is trying to bring up a hairball. It’s very hard to figure out what’s causing a cat to cough or gag, so it’s important to see a veterinarian for a diagnosis. It’s a good idea to video an episode of the coughing, to show your veterinarian.
It can be! If your cat is breathing with their mouth open, breathing faster than usual, breathing with more effort, their lips or tongue have a blue tinge, or they are collapsed, then this is an emergency.