Does My Cat Have Asthma Or A Hairball? 

small kitten looks at camera

Does My Cat Have Asthma Or A Hairball? 

Get more information about the possible causes and treatments of feline breathing problems.

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Have you ever witnessed your cat coughing and retching? It can be a disturbing sight to see as a cat owner and the cause of these symptoms can be hard to determine. While hairballs may be a common occurrence with cats, what might seem like a cat trying to pass a hairball could be a feline asthma attack or another condition that mimics some of the signs of a hairball. 

Cat Asthma Vs. Hairballs: How To Tell The Difference 

Hairballs, known medically as trichobezoars, are usually tube-shaped wads of hair (the same shape as the esophagus). When cats groom themselves, hair can get trapped on the barb-like protrusions on the tongue and end up being ingested. 

On occasion, the hair isn’t digested and ends up forming a ball in the digestive tract.1 As a result, cats will attempt to regurgitate the hairball to remove it. As common as they may seem, frequent hairballs are not to be taken lightly, as they can become a dangerous issue if they end up causing a blockage or could be a sign of another problem. 

Because cat hairballs are mistakenly believed to be so common, sometimes cats who are heard coughing and retching are assumed to be coughing up a hairball, which may not be the problem. Frequent coughs (multiple times a week), especially without a hairball being produced, could be a sign of asthma.2 

Cat asthma is less common, but is a very serious and potentially life-threatening condition that affects approximately 1% to 5% of cats.3 It is caused by chronic inflammation that leads to swelling and constriction of the airways. Once this response occurs, it’s difficult for oxygen to reach the lungs. 

Cat asthma and hairballs affect different organs in the body. Asthma affects the airways, while hairballs affect the stomach, esophagus, and gastrointestinal tract. 

Even though these conditions have different anatomical origins, both can have symptoms that sound and look very similar. When a cat is experiencing an asthma attack or trying to pass a hairball, they will cough repeatedly and assume a squatting position with their neck extended. 

How can you determine if it’s a hairball or asthma? There are several other signs and symptoms that differentiate the two. It’s important to pay attention to these unique signs your cat may be showing as it could be a serious issue. 

cat preparing to cough up a hairball

Signs Of A Hairball 

If you notice your cat is grooming excessively or consistently licking a skin condition or wound, the regurgitation of a hairball is common. The classic signs of a cat trying to pass a hairball include: 

  • Retching 
  • Gagging      

In most cases, the hairball will be produced. In more serious cases where the hairball is creating a blockage, a cat may show the following symptoms in addition to coughing, retching and gagging: 

  • Vomiting 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Lethargy4 

In the event your cat is showing any serious symptoms, take them to the vet for examination. 

Signs Of Asthma 

Frequent recurring coughs that don’t produce a hairball can be a sign of asthma, particularly if the cough occurs more than once a week, or if it is intermittent and continues for more than 4 weeks. 

Asthma attacks are also associated with a characteristic posture. Many cats hunch their body close to the ground and extend their necks forward during an attack. 

In the event of an asthma attack, your cat may cough in addition to any number of the following symptoms: 

  • Wheezing 
  • Blue lips and gums 
  • Heavy or rapid breathing 
  • Breathing through the mouth 
  • Absence of a hairball 

If you suspect your cat is experiencing an asthma attack, take them to a vet immediately for intervention. 

Other Conditions That Can Be Mistaken For Hairballs 

There are also several other conditions that may be mistaken for a hairball. 

1. Feline Heartworm Disease

While the signs of feline heartworm disease can range from subtle to severe, the most common symptoms of feline heartworm disease are coughing and periodic vomiting.5 

2. Other Parasitic Conditions

Gastrointestinal parasites can cause nonspecific symptoms such as coughing, vomiting, or loss of appetite that can mimic the signs of a hairball.6 

3. Environmental Irritants & Allergies

Common irritants and allergens in your cat’s environment can trigger bouts of coughing that sound very similar to passing a hairball. Common triggers include: 

  • Grasses and pollens 
  • Household cleaners 
  • Aerosols and strong fragrances 
  • Cat litter 
  • Dust 
  • Foreign Bodies

Objects can become stuck in the windpipe or the esophagus which cause symptoms that are very similar to passing a hairball. Foreign material or food stuck in the esophagus can lead to gagging, choking, and vomiting.7 Foreign material in the windpipe can cause cats to retch and cough to try to force the object out.8 

5. Disease Of The Respiratory Tract 

Respiratory diseases other than asthma can present similar symptoms as passing a hairball, such as coughing, retching.9 These conditions include respiratory infections (cat flu), lung tumors, and pneumonia. 

6. Congestive Heart Failure

Heart failure is the broad term that refers to poor functioning of the cardiovascular system. Coughing is a common symptom of these conditions and loss of appetite is another possible sign.10 

When To Be Concerned 

Regardless whether you suspect a hairball, asthma, or another condition, if your cat is showing any serious symptoms such as vomiting, weight loss, wheezing, or blue gums and lips, it warrants a visit to the vet. A blockage in the digestive tract may require intervention such as surgery, and an asthma attack may need life-saving medication to open the airways. 

It is always best to err on the side of caution to keep your cat safe and healthy. 

  Take the Feline Asthma Assessment to see if your cat could have asthma. 


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