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Why is my cat coughing?

The essentials

  • Cats cough for all sorts of common causes — Your cat may cough because of allergies, hairballs, and other respiratory tract irritations. 
  • Some coughs can be treated at home — Your veterinarian may prescribe medication to be given at home for uncomplicated respiratory infections or allergies.
  • Watch for signs of more serious conditions — See a vet if your cat’s cough lasts longer than a few days, is particularly severe, productive, or recurring, or is accompanied by labored breathing, blood, decreased appetite, or weight loss.

Cats sometimes cough for the same reasons we do — allergies, an obstruction in the throat, or even the common cold — but sometimes the cause is more serious. Because a cough can be a symptom of various ailments, from asthma to heart disease, the first thing any pet owner should do is figure out what’s causing it.

Why do cats cough?

Cat coughing is usually caused by an inflammation of the lower respiratory tract due to viral or bacterial infection. However, like humans, many things can trigger coughing in cats, from illnesses and injuries to inhaled foreign objects. 

Other common causes include: 

  • Hairballs. Cat coughing is sometimes confused with gagging, which can come from drinking water too quickly or vomiting up a hairball. 
  • Inhaled objects. Cats may accidentally inhale foreign objects like water droplets or crumbs. This often leads to excessive coughing and sneezing but quickly passes. If you suspect your cat has inhaled something larger, if they continue to cough and sneeze for several hours, or if they exhibit other respiratory problems, call your vet and seek guidance.
  • Allergies. Like humans, cats get allergies , too. Grass, mold, pollen, dust, and other common allergens can trigger a cat’s allergies, leading to a dry cough, sneezing, a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, and wheezing.
  • Acute bronchitis. Caused by bacterial or viral infections or other irritants, this inflammation of a cat’s lungs may appear at first like asthma. However, unlike asthma, once the root of bronchitis has been treated, the symptoms will subside.
  • Pleural effusion . This refers to an abnormal buildup of fluid in a cat’s chest cavity. Because the fluid takes up space in the chest, it pushes down on the lungs and prevents them from expanding properly. 
  • Heartworms. Parasitic worms, typically associated with dogs, affect cats, too. Coughing is sometimes a symptom of heartworm disease in cats, which can cause significant damage to the heart and lungs.
  • Pneumonia. This is a serious condition and, unfortunately, one that can be easily missed because symptoms are often similar to less serious upper respiratory infections or colds. Seek immediate medical attention if you notice that your cat coughs up mucus or blood, develops eye or nasal discharge, struggles to breathe, develops a fever, is lethargic, or has a bluish mouth.
  • Cancer. In rare cases, cat coughing can be an early indicator of cancer affecting the lungs or airways 
  • Trauma. Cats may cough as a result of injury to their respiratory tract. This includes physical injuries and inhalation injuries sustained from breathing in chemicals and other harmful compounds. 
  • Asthma. Also known as bronchial asthma, asthmatic flare-ups caused by allergens, essential oils, and certain fragrances can be serious for cats. Feline asthma is relatively common, causing irritation, swelling, and constriction of the airways. It’s often confused with hairball cough, but you’ll know it’s asthma if you never see any hairballs come up.

Cats and kennel cough

When dogs are exposed to a variety of bacterial and viral infections at the same time, it can lead to a contagious respiratory condition known as kennel cough

Depending on the pathogen behind a particular case of kennel cough, cats in the area may or may not be susceptible to the disease. Cats suffer from a similar condition called feline bordetellosis, which is caused by one of the primary bacteria linked to kennel cough,  Bordetella bronchiseptica . 

To prevent the spread of infection, we recommend isolating any pet in your home that is sneezing, coughing, or has discharge coming from their eyes or nose. This is especially important in multi-pet households, but may not be as big of a priority for owners of just one pet.

Wet and dry coughs in cats

The type of cough your cat is experiencing can tell you more about the cause behind it. 

“Wet” coughs are distinguished by the presence of phlegm, the thick mucus produced in the airways as part of the body’s immune response to infection. Dry coughs aren’t caused by viruses and bacteria but by conditions like asthma, cancer, parasitic infections, and in cases of inhaled foreign bodies. 

Other common differences between wet and dry coughs include:

Wet cough symptoms Dry cough symptoms
Runny or stuffy nose. Bordetella and other common feline respiratory illnesses produce cold-like symptoms including sneezing and nasal congestion. Blue or gray tongue or gums. This is especially prominent in cats suffering asthmatic attacks.
Fever. Cats suffering from a viral, fungal, or bacterial infection may experience body temperatures above the normal range of 100.4°F to 102.5°F. Decreased appetite and weight loss. Cats who have inhaled foreign objects may eat less than usual until the object is removed. Cats with parasitic worms may also experience decreased appetite alongside a cough.
Ocular disease. Some illnesses like the feline herpesvirus may cause cats to develop redness in the eyes, clear or green ocular discharge, or conjunctivitis in tandem with respiratory symptoms like coughing. Dry coughs are usually indicative of serious conditions in cats and require immediate veterinary attention.

Cat coughing and other symptoms

In cats and humans, coughing rarely occurs on its own. Pay attention to any symptoms your cat is experiencing alongside their cough to get a better idea of the underlying cause. 

Cat coughing up hairballs

“Coughs” that produce hairballs are more similar to retches or gags since they’re coming from your cat’s digestive tract, not their airways. A cat may exhibit this “cough-gag-retch” reflex multiple times for a single hairball, but it’s usually nothing to worry about. As long as the hairball is the only thing coming up from the retching, it’s likely normal cat behavior. 

👉 Try using a flavored hairball gel to lubricate your cat’s digestive tract and help hairballs pass through more easily. 

Cat coughing up blood

Coughing up blood is a potential emergency that requires immediate medical attention. This is uncommon but can occur in cats with a pulmonary embolism or lung cancer. Other symptoms may include difficulty breathing, low energy levels, decreased appetite, and weight loss. 

In most cases, a cat will only cough up blood if they’ve already had a persistent cough for more than 8 weeks. Take them to the vet as soon as you notice blood in their cough so they can conduct the appropriate diagnostic tests, including chest X-rays, a urine analysis, and blood tests. 

A blood cough could be a sign your cat ate something poisonous like rodenticide or a toxic plant . Severe blood loss over a short period can lead to severe, potentially life-threatening anemia.  

It seems to be getting more and more difficult to have a veterinary exam within a few days, and waiting weeks can be the difference between life and death, depending on diagnosis and prognosis.

Dr. Bruce Armstrong.

Cat coughing and wheezing

Wheezing can be triggered by common conditions like allergies and cat colds, but it can also be a telltale sign of more serious conditions like asthma and congestive heart failure . Cats may wheeze in combination with coughing and labored, open-mouth breathing. 

🚨See a vet if you hear your cat wheezing, especially if they’re not already diagnosed with a chronic condition.

Cat coughing and sneezing

When a cat is coughing and sneezing, the culprit is most likely an upper respiratory infection (URI). In particular, an infection of the nasal passageways can create discharge that flows to the back of the throat and produces a cough. URIs are most commonly caused by bacterial or viral pathogens and can be resolved with the help of prescription medications.

Since there are so many variables and possibilities with a coughing cat, if hairball treatment doesn't resolve it in a day or so or if the cat is becoming more critical, they should be examined sooner than later as most home care solutions will not work.

Dr. Bruce Armstrong

Diagnosing and treating coughs in cats

The treatment plan your vet recommends will depend on the underlying cause of your cat’s cough. Your vet will ask you about symptoms, recent changes in your cat’s environment, or any other relevant history when making their diagnosis. Minor concerns may be treated at home, while more serious conditions like pneumonia may require hospitalization.

  • Hairballs. The best treatment for hairballs is prevention. Help your cat with grooming by brushing out loose hairs they would otherwise swallow while cleaning themselves. If regular brushing doesn’t help, you may consider specially formulated cat foods and dietary supplements available over the counter. Consult with your vet before dramatically changing your cat’s diet.
  • Allergies. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for treating feline allergies, but you will need to see a vet for proper tests. Once a professional determines the cause of the allergies, your cat may be prescribed oral allergy medication or injections including steroids for more serious reactions.
  • Acute bronchitis. Once antibiotics have cleared up any infections, your cat should recover quickly. Lingering symptoms can be treated with anti-inflammatories or other medications your vet should provide, though more serious cases may require additional treatment in the form of oxygen therapy, inhaler therapy, and/or hospitalization. 
  • Asthma. In addition to helping your cat maintain a healthy weight and providing an environment free from irritants, you may need to visit your vet to get anti-inflammatories and other medications prescribed. These medications help open the airways and dry out excess mucus secretions. 
  • Heartworms. Unfortunately, there is no treatment available for heartworms in cats. Your only option with an infection is to treat the symptoms and start the cat on a worm prevention regime until the worms die off on their own. This can take about two years. While this is a difficult process, it is important to follow all directions from your vet. Do not give canine heartworm medication to a cat, though, because this can be lethal.
  • Pneumonia. Depending on the severity of the case, the treatments will differ. For severe cases, hospitalization for monitoring or nebulizer treatments may be necessary. For milder cases, a regimen of antibiotics or antifungal medications may be enough.

Take inventory of any other symptoms, and discuss observations with your vet. Acting quickly on the early signs of a potentially serious health concern will save you money and heartache, so take a worrying cough seriously. Remember that many veterinary exams and virtual visits are covered by pet insurance when purchased beforehand.

While coughs can be a completely normal reaction to mild irritants, consistent coughing paired with other symptoms calls for action. Pay attention to your cat’s needs and behavior, and you will hopefully be able to catch any medical issues before your feline friend is in any real danger.

Frequently asked questions

What to do if your cat is coughing but no hairball?

If your cat is coughing without producing a hairball, you’ll want to watch for other symptoms to get a better idea of the underlying cause. Wet coughs are usually indicative of viral or bacterial infections, while dry coughs can suggest asthma or the presence of a foreign body.  If your cat’s cough continues for more than a few days or gets worse at any point, take them to see a vet. 

What does feline asthma sound like?

Feline asthma is most commonly characterized by a wheezing sound accompanied by coughing and difficult, rapid, or open-mouth breathing. During an attack, cats with asthma may hunch their bodies close to the ground with their necks extended forward as if they’re trying to expel a hairball. Full-fledged asthma attacks are characterized by drooling or coughing up mucus, and by a cat’s sides moving noticeably in and out as they work hard to breathe. 

What are the symptoms of Lungworm in cats?

Lungworm infection is caused by the presence of parasitic roundworms in a cat’s body, with common signs including coughing, heavy breathing, sneezing, wheezing, decreased appetite, weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, and ocular or nasal discharge. These symptoms are caused by the body’s reaction to the parasite, and many cats show no visible symptoms. 

 👉 Kittens may show more pronounced lungworm systems because of their weaker immune systems.

When should I worry about my cat’s cough?

It’s time to call the vet when your cat has a persistent or productive cough or shows signs of unusual breathing. Coughing accompanied by other symptoms such as a loss of appetite is also cause for concern.

What should I do if my cat is coughing?

Watch for signs of mucus or phlegm, and monitor your cat for other symptoms. It may be a good idea to jot down your observations when your vet asks for recent history.

Why does my cat keep coughing and gagging?

Coughing and gagging are different, but sound very similar. Your cat might gag after drinking water too quickly or if they drink water when their body is expecting food. A hairball might also cause cats to gag or retch. These are different from coughing which can be a sign of a more serious problem like lower airway disease or even heartworms.