Coughing in cats

Coughing is a common symptom in cats. Respiratory problems can progress quickly and be life-threatening. Always speak to a vet if unsure.

Some of the more common causes are respiratory infections, asthma and hairballs. Older cats are more likely to have chronic diseases or tumours.


What to do

What to do if your cat is coughing

Speak to a vet straight away if a cough is associated with wheezing, lethargy, difficulty breathing, exercise intolerance or complete lack of appetite. Emergency treatment may be needed.

Call your vet for an appointment if your cat has been coughing for more than two weeks, even if the cough is mild and they are otherwise well.

Cats can try to hide their symptoms. If you are worried, speaking to a telemedicine vet may help decide the best thing to do.



What causes coughing in cats?

Infections are common, especially in young cats. These can be viral, like Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, or caused by bacteria like Mycoplasma Felis. These are usually caught from other cats but can stay in the body for some time without causing symptoms.

Parasites, such as Lungworm, can also cause coughing. These are usually caught while hunting.

Allergy/Asthma- Allergic bronchial disease or asthma is relatively common in cats and sometimes causes coughing.

Foreign bodies, such as blades of grass or seeds, can find their way into a cat’s windpipe and cause sudden and intense bouts of coughing and retching.

Polyps: Cats can develop small lumps or polyps at the back of their nasal passages. This can lead to coughing.

Heart disease can cause coughing because of fluid build-up in the lungs, this usually happens when the disease is very advanced.

Tumours or cancer that have grown or spread to the chest may eventually cause coughing.

Hairballs: Cats that are trying to bring up a hairball unsuccessfully may appear to be coughing.

Rare causes:

  • Cats that are very weak and vomit can sometimes inhale the sick, causing aspiration pneumonia. This can also happen in cats that have diseases that interfere with how they swallow their food.
  • Electrocution can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and cause coughing and respiratory problems.
  • Severe head trauma can sometimes cause fluid buildup in the lungs as well.
  • A Pulmonary Thromboembolism (a blood clot stopping blood flow to a part of the lungs)  is another rare cause of coughing.


When to worry

When to worry about coughing in cats

Cats are very good at pacing themselves and hiding symptoms if they’re feeling unwell. It’s very important to be vigilant when they are unwell, especially with things that affect their breathing. Contact a vet straight away if your cat has any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing 
  • Wheezing
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Pale or bluish gums
  • Hiding all the time
  • Not eating anything
  • Tired or breathing fast after minimal exercise or movement

Even if no other symptoms are present, a vet check is recommended if the cough is frequent, severe or has been present for more than a week.


Preventing coughing in cats

Regular vaccination against Feline Rhinotracheitis Virus and Feline Leukemia Virus will protect against infection.

Regular deworming treatment will prevent the development of parasitic lung disease. This may need to be done frequently for very active hunters.

Preventative use of a good quality hairball paste can be beneficial, especially for long-haired cats or when they are shedding a lot.

Regular health checks may allow early detection of chronic conditions that can eventually lead to coughing.


Diagnosis of coughing in cats

A basic visual examination can be very useful if concerned about a cough. Evaluating the rate and type of breathing, colour of the gums, general behaviour and body language can assist in determining how serious the problem might be.

Listening to your cat’s chest with a stethoscope tells the vet a lot about the status of the lungs and bronchi. 

If your cat is very unwell, your vet may advise that they stay in a high-oxygen environment for a period of time. This is often life-saving and can also prevent complications during other procedures.

X-rays or ultrasound are frequently recommended. This is to confirm or evaluate the extent of any lung issues suspected on auscultation. It may also detect foreign bodies.

Blood or faecal tests allow diagnosis of some infections. Others require a sample to be obtained from the airways with a swab.

Home treatment

How to help a cat that is coughing

Do not hesitate to contact a vet if the cough is severe or your cat is unwell in other ways.

Your cat may find it easier to eat and swallow if fed soft, wet food. However, if they prefer to eat dry please make sure this is also available.

Try to avoid exposure to scented candles, diffusers, air fresheners or smoke.

Breathing moist steamy air may help with congestion in their airways. This can be achieved by having them in the bathroom when the shower is being used.

Vet treatment

How a vet can help your coughing cat

Giving oxygen is life-saving if a cat is struggling to breathe.

If fluid is detected within the lungs, your cat may need to continue receiving oxygen treatment while being given medication to address this.

If fluid is detected around the lungs, this will need to be drained and a chest drain may need to be placed.

If a foreign body is suspected, a bronchoscopy or rhinoscopy may be recommended. This is when a small tube with a camera is passed down the throat or up the back of the mouth. This allows the inside of the airways to be examined.

With certain types of infections, or if cancer is suspected but not seen on x-rays, a broncho-alveolar lavage may be recommended. This is similar to a bronchoscopy, but after visual examination, a small amount of fluid is introduced into the airway and then collected. This allows loose cells in the airway to be collected for analysis.


Are some cats more at risk?

Younger cats are more likely to have an infection or developmental problem

Older cats are more likely to have heart disease or tumours

Certain breeds such as  Maine Coon, Ragdoll, Persian, Sphynx and both American and British Shorthairs are at higher risk for heart disease.

Siamese and Oriental cats have a higher risk of asthma.

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