Why Is My Cat Coughing?
Is it just a hairball?
Cats are known to hack up the occasional hairball, but if your cat’s coughing without any hairballs in sight, does that mean he’s sick?
Coughing every now and then is actually pretty normal for cats, just like it is for people. However, it can sometimes be a sign of illness, so cat parents should know how to tell the difference.
Courtney Wilson, a registered veterinary nurse with DodoVet, gave us all the info you need to know about why your cat’s coughing and how to determine if it’s a problem.
Why is my cat coughing?
Cats can cough for a number of reasons, but according to Wilson, “often in cats, it is due to inflammation (like asthma or bronchitis) or irritation (like allergies or infections).”
Some common reasons why cats cough include:
- Irritants, such as dust
- Inhaled foreign objects
- Bacterial, viral or fungal upper respiratory tract infections
- Heart disease
- Pleural effusion (buildup of fluid around the lungs)
Is my cat sick or coughing up a hairball?
Many people confuse their cat’s gagging, retching or coughing up a hairball with actual coughing.
“A retch or gag can often sound like coughing, but you can tell the difference between them by your cat’s posture,” Wilson told The Dodo. “Gagging or retching is often visualized as a low to the ground cat with an extended neck [and] a rolling or surging throat movement.”
If your cat’s gagging or retching, he’ll usually cough something up, like a hairball or vomit.
On the other hand, “a cough in a cat is a sudden, loud expulsion of air from the lungs,” Wilson said.
When should you take your cat to the vet for coughing?
If your cat only coughs once in a while, you don’t need to worry. “But when there are other symptoms with the cough, it is time to investigate with your vet,” Wilson said.
According to Wilson, some ways you can tell if your cat’s cough isn’t normal are if it lasts longer than a few days, produces phlegm, is severe enough to cause him to spit up, or is in combination with sneezing or wheezing.
“If your cat has other symptoms such as weight loss, not eating, looking unkempt, or seeming lethargic, it is time to consult with your primary care veterinarian,” Wilson said.
If your cat shows any of these symptoms, get him to the vet ASAP:
- Open-mouth breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Blue, gray or white gums
- Coughing up blood
These symptoms may mean it’s an emergency. Difficulty breathing and pale gums can be signs of an asthma attack and a lack of oxygen intake, while coughing up blood can be a sign of trauma, cancer or poisoning.
Treatment for coughing in cats
The treatment your vet will recommend depends on the cause of your cat’s cough. Here are some common treatments so you’ll know what to expect.
Irritants or inhaled foreign objects
If something is in your cat’s nose or throat, like dust or a piece of grass, the cough will go away once that object is removed. If it’s something that won’t come out on its own, your vet might have to take it out.
In most cases, coughing from an infection can be treated with medication. Common treatments include corticosteroids (like Prednisolone), antibiotics and antivirals.
If your cat has allergies, your vet can prescribe hypoallergenic food, allergy medicine or allergy shots to ease his symptoms.
“Using a HEPA filter in an air purifier can help reduce the number of allergens in the air,” Wilson said.
Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for cats with heartworm, so you’ll just have to keep your cat comfy while he recovers. Your vet can prescribe medication to reduce complications, and surgery may be needed to remove the parasites in severe cases.
For emergency situations, “[cats] can be put in an oxygen cage or have supplemental oxygen through a mask to help them increase their oxygen saturation,” Wilson said. “If your kitty has fluid around its lungs or trauma from an accident, your vet can remove the fluid and address the injuries.”
For asthma, “your vet can prescribe an inhaler or a nebulizer to give aerosolized medications, like albuterol,” Wilson said. “Medications that your cat can breathe in are usually the best and preferred method for coughing.”
You should also reduce possible irritants that can make your cat’s asthma worse, like strong-smelling air fresheners or cleaning products, cigarette smoke and dust. Using an air filter can help clean the air in your house, too.
For mild coughs and no other symptoms, you can try using a humidifier or sitting with your cat in the bathroom while the shower runs. The moist air can sometimes help coughs.
Can cats get kennel cough?
You’ve probably heard of kennel cough in dogs, but cats can actually get the illness, too.
Kennel cough is a throat and upper respiratory tract infection. In cats, it’s caused by the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, and symptoms include coughing, sneezing, runny nose, eye discharge, fever and difficulty breathing.
It’s highly contagious, so if your cat has it, be sure to keep him away from other animals until he’s all better.
Kennel cough is usually mild in cats, but in some cases, it can develop into other respiratory illnesses, especially in kittens and cats with existing diseases. Treatment for this illness usually includes antibiotics, immune system supplements or cough medications.
Now hopefully you’ll be able to tell the difference between your cat coughing up a hairball and actual coughing — and when it’s an emergency.
Want access to a vet 24/7? With DodoVet, you can connect via video chat, phone or text with an empathetic veterinary expert who can help you be the best pet parent you can be. Say goodbye to Dr. Google and have all your pet parent questions answered anytime, anywhere. Learn more here.