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Why Is My Cat Coughing? Reasons and Treatment

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Do cats cough? The answer is yes—but many pet parents mistake gagging or throwing up hairballs for a coughing cat. The truth is that cats cough to get air or substances out of their lungs and airways or if they have inflammation in their airways—gagging and hairballs are a stomach reflex. Cat hairball control solutions can help with that issue, but you will need other solutions if your cat is truly coughing. Read on for more information. 

What does a cat sound like when coughing?

Like humans, a cat’s cough can be dry or wet. A dry cough is wheezy or may sound like a honking noise because your cat can’t cough up any material. Wheezing can also occur between coughs, which can mean your cat isn’t getting enough air to their lungs.

A wet cough can sound like they are coughing up a substance or as if they have something caught in their throat. This is called a productive cough. If severe enough, both types of coughing can end with retching, and your pet may inadvertently throw up cat food or other stomach contents in the process. Dry and wet coughing sounds typically indicate different conditions, which can be important to your veterinarian. Taking a video of your cat coughing can help your veterinarian determine what is going on.

When should I worry about my cat coughing?

A cat’s dry cough can result from simple environmental irritation and doesn’t necessarily require treatment if it is mild and short lived. However, roughly 1% to 5% of cats worldwide can suffer from asthma, and dry wheezing could indicate your feline is sensitive to something in or around your home. A cat coughing up hairballs can also be normal, unless they are struggling to do so. However, you should still seek hairball solutions to minimize effects from and formation of hairballs. If the cough is frequent or lasts for more than two days, it is cause for concern. 

Wet coughs are typically more concerning than dry coughs. A cat coughing up mucus or other substances may have a more serious condition, especially with other symptoms like vomiting or weight loss. The most important thing to know about a cat coughing is that you should have them evaluated by a veterinarian. 

Why is my cat coughing?

There are many different reasons why your cat could be coughing, so it’s important to know when to be concerned. Here are some of the most common causes. 

Asthma:

Asthma usually appears in younger cats, but may not appear until your cat is older. However, don’t just assume your older cat has asthma—they could be experiencing pneumonia. How does asthma present itself? Besides coughing and wheezing, you’ll likely see general shortness of breath—especially after exercise—and a blue tongue or gums in severe cases. Many times your cat will present with open-mouth breathing, and open-mouth breathing in cats is never normal.

Allergic pneumonitis:

This is an allergic reaction to irritants in the throat or lungs—which can even include heartworms. The offending element can cause inflammation or increased production of mucus, both of which can lead to obstruction of the airways. Allergic pneumonitis can cause either a dry or a wet cough and, in severe cases, can cause staggered breathing and weight loss. 

Obstructive lung disease:

This is a somewhat general term for conditions that cause coughing when air becomes trapped in a cat’s lungs. For example, pulmonary thromboembolism is when blood vessels are blocked, while pulmonary edema is a buildup of fluid in the lung tissues.

Pneumonia:

Commonly caused when a virus or bacteria invades the respiratory system and causes infection in the lungs, pneumonia can also be caused by parasites. If your cat is suffering from pneumonia, you may notice them making a choking, coughing sound, often accompanied by labored breathing.

Tracheobronchitis:

Tracheobronchitis is an inflammation of the upper and sometimes lower respiratory system. Symptoms include fever and a sudden, spasmodic hacking cough—especially due to exercise or a change in environment. Tracheobronchitis has many causes, including smoke, exposure to paint or chlorine fumes, immune disorders and even previous conditions that caused excessive coughing. 

Worms:

Parasites such as heartworms and lungworms are among the more unsettling potential causes of coughing and wheezing. The signs typically start more mildly, with moderate coughing and faster breathing. As the parasites grow, these symptoms can progress to a persistent, wet cough and severe respiratory distress. Other signs your cat has worms include weight loss and lethargy, and symptoms can sometimes resemble asthma to the untrained eye. Some intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, also cause coughing in younger cats. This is usually because the cat is trying to bring up the worms that are in their stomach and esophagus.

What should I do if my cat is coughing?

The first step when you notice your cat or kitten coughing is to monitor their symptoms. If they are coughing continuously or aren’t getting enough oxygen, an emergency veterinary visit may be required. If they have an intermittent cough, take note of whether it’s wet or dry and if they have any other symptoms, like vomiting or wheezing between coughs. 

If your cat continues coughing for several days—or develops a hacking cough that disrupts their daily routine—take them in for a veterinary visit. Your vet will look at their medical history and ask you about symptoms and recent environmental changes. Depending on your answers, they may want to perform blood tests, cultures, X-rays, ultrasounds or an endoscopic examination. Again, taking a video of your cat coughing can help your veterinarian determine what is going on. You can provide cat calming aids if your feline friend has anxiety at your vet’s office.

What can I give my cat for a cough?

If your cat is coughing, the most important step is to take them to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will likely want to do some diagnostic tests first, and they may prescribe cough suppressants, decongestants, antibiotics or other medications once the underlying cause of the cough is identified.

If your cat keeps coughing despite medication, further investigation may be required, and treatment will again depend on the underlying condition. Antibiotics are used for bacterial infections, and anti-inflammatories and steroids can be used for allergies and bronchitis. In rare cases, a coughing cat may have cancer or a tumor and may require chemotherapy or surgery.

If your cat or kitten is coughing, it isn’t always cause for concern—but it is something you should monitor closely. Keep track of your cat’s symptoms and see your veterinarian for persistent or severe coughing and wheezing. 

Pet prescriptions available to order at Petco

Reviewed by Dr. Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM

As Petco’s Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Miller is the lead veterinary subject matter expert, overseeing the company’s standards of excellence in animal care and welfare, growth in pet services and much more. Dr. Miller leads Petco’s medical team, supporting over 200 full-service hospitals and mobile vaccination clinics operating in over 1,000 Petco Pet Care Centers nationwide

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