Common Causes of Coughing in Cats
This article is part of our Cat Asthma series. Download the full Guide To Cat Asthma here.
Seeing your cat coughing and hacking can be very disturbing. Although coughing is not always something to be concerned about (such as when a cat is trying to pass a hairball), it is important to distinguish when your cat requires medical attention.
While hairballs are often thought to be the cause of cat’s coughing, it is normal for cats to only cough up a hairball a couple of times per month. Any more than this and it could be a sign of an underlying condition.1
What Makes A Cat Cough
When irritants, dust, mucus, or other particles enter the airways, a protective reflex is triggered to try to get rid of them. This reflex is a cough: an attempt to keep the airways clear.2
Coughing in cats can occur for a number of reasons. While a cough isn’t a condition or disease itself, it can be a sign of an underlying problem.
Some of the causes of coughing in cats include:
- Feline asthma
- Respiratory infections
- Passing a hairball
- Other parasitic conditions
- Disease of the respiratory tract3
When Should You Be Concerned?
1. Your Cat Is Coughing With No Hairball
If your cat is coughing but no hairball is produced, it is important to pay attention to other symptoms your cat is showing.
Infrequent, but regular coughing (a few times a week or consistently every few weeks) can be a sign of asthma. Your cat may crouch low to the ground with their neck extended upwards—a position that helps your cat get as much air as possible between coughs. Untreated asthma can be life-threatening.
If no hairball is produced, pay attention to if your cat is showing any other signs mentioned on this list.
2. Your Cat Keeps Coughing
If your cat’s cough is persistent, continues for more than a few days, or begins to worsen, take them to the vet. A cough that persists may be an indication of a respiratory infection or asthma.
3. Your Cat Has A Productive (Wet) Cough
If your cat has a wet cough, the coughing will produce phlegm or sputum4. This type of cough will sound moist, and can be indicative of a lower respiratory problem.
4. Your Cat’s Cough Is Accompanied By Wheezing
A wheezing noise between coughs could indicate that your cat can’t get enough oxygen to their lungs. Wheezing is produced in the lower airways and occurs when air passageways constrict, and/or when inflammation causes swelling. This could be an indicator of feline asthma.
5. Your Cat Is Coughing And Sneezing
If your cat is sneezing in addition to coughing, it may be a sign of a viral or respiratory infection.5
6. Your Cat Is Losing Weight
If your cat begins to lose weight or has a reduced appetite in addition to the cough, it may be an indication of a parasite or infection.6
7. Your Cat’s Cough Keeps Coming Back
If your cat’s cough is recurrent, take them to the vet to find out what may be causing it to keep coming back. A recurrent cough could be an indicator of allergies or asthma. Asthma is a lifetime condition and symptoms will return if not managed regularly.
8. Your Cat’s Tongue And Gums Are Turning Blue
If your cat’s tongue and gums begin to turn a shade of blue or grey when coughing, it is an indication your cat is not getting enough oxygen7. In this case, take them to the vet immediately.
Treatments For Cat Coughing
Treatment options vary depending on the condition associated with the coughing. In the case of a hairball, your cat’s coughing should subside once the hairball has passed.
Any recurring cough should be examined by a vet to address any underlying conditions. Always consult your vet before attempting to treat your cat’s cough. Treatment without a diagnosis can be harmful to your cat or worsen your cat’s condition.8
Treating Cat Asthma & Respiratory Infections
Fortunately, feline asthma and respiratory infections can be treated. If your cat has been diagnosed with asthma, there are two main types of medications prescribed: corticosteroids to treat inflammation and bronchodilators to expand the airways. These medications come in inhaled, oral, or injected forms, however, inhaled medication is the preferred method.
Inhaled steroids, unlike systemic steroids, do not need to be metabolized by the body. They work by directly targeting the lungs, reducing the likelihood of side effects. Administering inhaled medications to your cat with an inhaler is simple and effective when used with an aerosol chamber (such as the AEROKAT chamber), and helps ensure your cat can inhale the full dose of medication.
There is no evidence to support the use of anti-histamines to treat asthma or bronchitis.
Treatments For Other Conditions
If an infection is the cause of the cat’s cough, antibiotics are normally prescribed to improve recovery.9
- Cough Suppressants
Cough suppressants may be prescribed to treat the cough symptomatically.10
- Antiparasitic Drugs
If a parasite is the cause of the cat’s cough, antiparasitic drugs are prescribed to help get rid of the parasite.
- Avoidance Of Triggers
In the case of allergies, asthma, or other inflammatory conditions, the removal of triggers is key to preventing your cat from coughing. Avoid smoking, spraying aerosols, or using strong chemicals around your pet, and try to use low-dust cat litter.11
If your cat is prescribed medication, it is important to continue to give the medication as prescribed. Do not stop treatment if your cat’s cough subsides.
What To Expect At The Vet’s Office
Before visiting your vet, take note of any other signs or symptoms your cat has shown in addition to the cough. If possible, try to take a video of your cat coughing at home to show the vet. Your vet will want to know as much as possible in order to properly diagnose and treat your pet.
Some questions your vet might ask include:
- How long have the symptoms been present?
- Is the cough wet or dry?
- Have you noticed any other symptoms besides the cough?
- Does your cat go outside?
- Is your cat receiving preventative treatment for parasitic worms?
- Is your cat more lethargic than usual?
Although relatively common, coughing in cats can be a sign of a more serious issue that can be life-threatening in some cases. If you are unsure if your cat’s cough warrants a visit to the vet, always err on the side of caution and take them regardless.
Take the Feline Asthma Assessment to see if your cat could have asthma.
1"The Danger of Hairballs" Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-…
2"Is It Normal for Cats To Cough?" Pet Health Network. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/cat-health/cat-diseases-conditions-a-z/…
4 Ernest Ward, DVM. "Coughing in Cats" VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/coughing-in-cats
5"Is It Normal for Cats To Cough?" Pet Health Network. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/cat-health/cat-diseases-conditions-a-z/…
7"Coughing In Cats – Is It Normal For A Cat To Cough?" Cat-World. https://www.cat-world.com.au/coughing-in-cats.html
8"Why Does My Cat Cough So Much?" WebMD. https://pets.webmd.com/cats/coughing-cats-causes-feline-coughing#2
9 Ernest Ward, DVM. "Coughing in Cats" VCA Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/coughing-in-cats
11"Coughing In Cats – Is It Normal For A Cat To Cough?" Cat-World. https://www.cat-world.com.au/coughing-in-cats.html