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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. While these cases are mild, coughs that produce blood or phlegm may indicate more serious conditions.
  • 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 — In addition to productive coughs, keep an eye out for open-mouth or other types of labored breathing. Fever, lethargy, or untidy appearance could signal pneumonia or an asthmatic attack.

Why do cats cough?

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.

Hairballs or inhaled objects

Cat coughing is sometimes confused with gagging, which can come from drinking water too quickly or vomiting up a hairball. Hairballs are uncommon unless your cat has long hair or regularly grooms another cat.

Sometimes, cats may accidentally inhale foreign objects like water droplets or crumbs. This often leads to excessive coughing and sneezing; typically, cats are fine afterward. 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.

Treating 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

Like humans, cats get allergies , too. Grass, mold, pollen, dust, and other common allergens can trigger a cat’s allergies. Respiratory allergies in cats are often accompanied by a dry cough, sneezing, a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, and wheezing.

Treatment for 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.

Asthma

Also known as bronchial asthma, asthmatic flare-ups caused by allergens, essential oils, and certain fragrances can be serious for cats. While relatively rare, feline asthma causes irritation, swelling, and constriction of the airways.

Asthma treatment in cats

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.

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.

Treatment for 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.

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.

Treating heartworms in cats

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 could be lethal.

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.

Treatment for 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.

When is it time to go to the vet?

An occasional cough may not be a reason for alarm, but a persistent and productive wet cough typically is. Often, a coughing cat needs immediate  veterinary attention when they have:

  • Developed a bluish tint to the lips, gums, or mouth overall
  • Collapsed or are unresponsive
  • Exaggerated, abnormal, or rapid breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Open-mouthed or continuous panting (outside of rigorous playtime)

Beyond emergency situations, there are many other indicators that professional help is necessary. If you notice the following symptoms, you should consult with a vet about treatment options as soon as you can.

  • Consistent, yet unproductive coughing. Coughs that linger but don’t produce hairballs are a reason to be concerned. A persistent cough doesn’t necessarily mean all day, every day — coughs that happen a few times a day, or a few days a week, can still be indicative of underlying issues other than a stubborn hairball.
  • Wet and/or productive coughing. Coughs where your cat produces sputum, or even blood, are reasons for concern.
  • Breathing problems. If your cat seems to struggle for breath or is panting outside of playtime or from an overly warm room, alert your vet.
  • Coughing, accompanied by weight loss. A cough alone, especially if it isn’t recurring or productive, may be normal. Your vet will want to know about other symptoms your cat is experiencing, including a loss of appetite, weight loss, or general lethargy.

Diagnosing and treating coughs in cats

The treatment plan your vet recommends will depend on the underlying cause. As we’ve mentioned, minor concerns may be treated at home while others, such as pneumonia, may require hospitalization.

Diagnosing causes of coughing

Your vet will ask about symptoms, recent changes in your cat’s environment, or any other relevant history. A diagnosis may include:

  • Bloodwork
  • Heartworm antigen tests
  • Lab cultures
  • Endoscopic examination
  • X-rays

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

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.