Occasional coughing in a cat can be harmless, but there are cases in which a cough can point to a medical concern. It’s important to know the difference, and when it’s time to see the vet.

What are some reasons behind a cat’s cough?

Like other animals, cats do cough sometimes. A cough is an effort to expel any unwanted material from the airways. This can be the result of a temporary irritant, respiratory disease, obstruction, inflammation, or the result of other medical conditions. There are a number of reasons why a cat could be coughing; all important to be aware of.

cat coughing

  • Hairballs: Retching and gagging associated with hairballs can often be confused with coughing. Cats groom themselves, resulting in the possible buildup of fur in their stomach. In some cats, this will lead to future vomiting. If you hear something that sounds like coughing, but the result is a coughed up hairball, it’s likely that your cat was just trying to pass the accumulated hair. If this happens often, it’s best to contact your vet to be sure.

 

  • Feline Asthma: Feline asthma is a common respiratory disease, affecting at least 1% of all cats. Asthma is often irritated by allergens in the environment; such as dust, pollen, mold, cat litter, cigarette smoke, etc. While asthma can vary in severity, it is a progressive disease of which there is no cure. During a cat asthma attack, the passage ways to the lungs will thicken and contract. This can lead to acute respiratory distress, ranging from coughing to difficulty breathing. If asthma progresses, the lungs may also begin to discharge mucus into the airways, leading to more frequent fits of coughing and wheezing. Because this disease can vary so greatly in severity, it’s important to see a vet if your cat shows any of the symptoms below. (medical emergencies in bold)
  • Coughing and wheezing that does not resolve quickly.
  • Persistent cough
  • Gagging up foamy mucus.
  • Lethargy
  • Labored breathing after exertion.
  • Open mouth breathing.
  • Poor gum color (blue, muddy, purple gums)

 

  • Heart Disease: There are different conditions affecting the heart that can lead to heart disease and symptomatic coughing. No matter the reason behind the cardiac disease, any condition affecting the heart should be taken seriously. Unfortunately for cat owners, cats often disguise the symptoms of heart disease much better than their furry companion the dog. Whether this is because cats are more anti-social, or if we associate their cough with other scenarios; heart disease in cats often goes undiagnosed. While all respiratory distress can start to look similar, there are often more severe symptoms associated with cardiac disease. (medical emergencies in bold).
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Short and rough breath sounds
  • Inability to tolerate exertion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Poor gum color (blue, muddy, purple gums)
  • Collapse

 

  • Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a serious medical condition in which the lungs become filled with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. This condition is often in result of disease causing bacteria entering the lungs, aspiration of any material, or trauma. Pneumonia can cause great illness in a cat, and will require fast medical intervention. The first stages of pneumonia may result in coughing, but will often be accompanied by other symptoms. (medical emergencies in bold)
  • Coughing
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Poor gum color (blue, muddy, purple gums)

 

  • Upper respiratory infection (URI): Upper respiratory infections can be the result of a viral or bacterial infection. Some of the most common causes are feline herpes virus, feline calici virus, bordetella bronchisepta, chlamydophila felis, and FIV/FeLV. These condition are extremely contagious, leading to the fast infection to cats who are exposed. While these conditions can cause coughing, they will often display other symptoms as well.
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from nose and eyes.
  • Anorexia
  • Fever

 

  • Parasitic diseases: While one of the more rare causes of coughing in cats, parasitic diseases can cause respiratory symptoms. These parasites can affect the lung systems, the cardiovascular system, and the circulatory system in cats. Some parasitic causes are heartworms, lungworms, and migration of intestinal parasites. Parasites affecting the lungs are often fatal, and require immediate medical intervention. Symptoms include:
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Nasal discharge
  • Emaciation
  • Progression to pneumonia and other complications.

 

  • Cancer: Cancer and tumors of the lung and airways can cause coughing in cats. Whether the cancer originated in the lungs, or has metastasized to the lungs, each can result in respiratory symptoms. Symptoms of these diseases can vary depending on the origin of the cancer, but often include:
  • Coughing
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in behavior
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fever
  • Possible neurological symptoms

 

How to diagnose a reason behind the cough?

Because coughing can be associated with a list of respiratory illnesses, diagnostic testing may not always be required. However, if the cough is severe or persists with other forms of intervention, diagnostics should be strongly considered.

Diagnostic work ups include taking a thorough medical history, blood work (including full panel testing or antigen testing), laboratory cultures, radiographs, and possible ultrasound of the heart.

feline asthma xray

When should you visit the vet if your cat is coughing?

A cat cough can have several different causes, so it can be difficult to know when to act. The occasional cough with no other symptoms or changes in behavior can be harmless. If at any point the occasional cough increases in frequency, or other changes in behavior are noted, it is best to see your veterinarian to rule out any possible causes. Since many of the conditions causing coughing in cats can be managed or treated, it’s best to act sooner than later if you have any concerns.

Summary

We all cough every now and then, and that does not exclude our pets.  While hopefully the reason behind your cats cough is nothing of concern, it’s best to stay informed of the possibilities, and ask your vet about any health concerns!