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Black cat in yellow grass coughs

The essentials

  • Coughing in cats isn’t always a reason for alarm — The time to worry is when your cat has a persistent or “productive” cough that produces phlegm, mucus, or blood.
  • Some coughs can be treated at home — Your veterinarian may prescribe medication that can be given at home for uncomplicated respiratory infections.
  • Watch for signs of more serious conditions — In addition to productive coughs, keep an eye out for open-mouth breathing or other types of labored breathing, plus fever, lethargy, or untidy appearance that 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 a cold — but sometimes the reason is more serious. Because a cough can be a symptom of a variety of ailments from asthma to heart disease, the first thing any pet owner should do is figure out what’s causing it. Take inventory of any other symptoms, and talk with your vet. Keep in mind that many veterinary exams and virtual visits are covered by pet insurance.

They may be looking for signs adding up to some of these conditions:

  • Allergies. Like people, cats get allergies too. Respiratory allergies in cats are often accompanied by coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, and wheezing.
  • Asthma. Also known as bronchial asthma, asthmatic flare-ups caused by allergens, essential oils, and certain fragrances can be more serious for cats. While relatively rare, feline asthma causes irritation, swelling, and constriction of the airways.
  • Heartworms. Parasitic worms, typically associated with dogs, affect cats, too. Coughing is sometimes a symptom of heartworm disease in cats.
  • 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.

Cat coughing is sometimes confused with the gagging that comes from drinking water too quickly or when they vomit up a hairball. Hairballs are uncommon unless your cat has long hair or regularly grooms another cat.

When is it time to go to the vet?

An occasional cough may not be a reason for alarm, but a persistent and productive cough typically is. You may notice your cat coughs while crouched with its neck extended upward. Other times a coughing cat needs veterinary attention is when they have:

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

Consistent, yet unproductive coughing. Coughs that linger but don’t produce hairballs are a reason to be concerned. Keep in mind that 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 infections 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

Treating a cough in cats

Your veterinarian will walk through the best treatments for your cat, but they may include:

Symptomatic treatment. Mild cases may be treated with a decongestant or topical eye medication if an upper respiratory disease is suspected.

Antibiotics. A bacterial infection may be treated with antibiotics or, sometimes, antivirals — it’s important to finish the entire course.

Hospitalization. The most serious cases may require oxygen therapy or a nebulizer treatment as well as intravenous fluids.

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 sometimes confused. 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.