What Causes Cat Coughing and What to Do

November 03, 2020
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We all cough from time to time, and the same is true for cats. Coughing is simply a reflex that helps the body clear material from within the respiratory tract.

Cats cough when something irritates the “coughing receptors” that line their pharynx (the area behind the nose and mouth), larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), and smaller airways (bronchi).

Infrequent cat coughing is generally nothing to worry about in an otherwise healthy cat. Pay attention to more chronic or severe coughs, or those associated with other symptoms.

If your cat has a severe or persistent cough, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to a rapid recovery!

Here are some possible reasons why your cat is coughing and what you can do to help.

Why Is My Cat Coughing?

The list of possible causes for a cat’s cough is long, but sometimes the problem is obvious.

Did you get a new cat litter that is especially dusty, and now your cat has a coughing fit while in the litter box? When inhaled, irritants of any sort can lead to coughing.

More persistent cat coughing may be caused by long-term exposure to irritants such as secondhand smoke.

Other common causes of coughs in cats include:

  • Respiratory infections: Bacterial and viral respiratory infections are common causes of coughing in cats. Occasionally, fungal or parasitic organisms may be involved.

  • Asthma: Cats with asthma experience airway narrowing, airway swelling, and mucus accumulation in response to certain triggers, all of which can lead to coughing.

  • Pleural effusion: This is an abnormal buildup of fluid around a cat’s lungs that can result in coughing.

  • Inhaled foreign objects: When foreign materials like food or pieces of grass are inhaled, a cat will cough to try to expel them.

  • Cancer: Coughing may be one of the first symptoms that owners notice when a cat has cancer that affects the respiratory tract.   

  • Trauma: Physical, chemical, or thermal injury to the respiratory tract can cause cat coughing.

  • Heartworms: The signs of heartworms in cats can be subtle and may include coughing.

Heart disease frequently leads to coughing in people and in dogs, but this is not the case in cats. Coughing cats almost always have some type of respiratory condition.

Can Cats Get Kennel Cough From Dogs?

In dogs, infection with a variety of bacteria and viruses can lead to kennel cough. Bordetella bronchiseptica, mycoplasma, parainfluenza virus, adenovirus type 2, canine coronavirus, and others may be to blame—alone or in combination.

Cats are susceptible to some of these pathogens, like Bordetella, but not others. To prevent potential spread, any pet that is sneezing, is coughing, and has discharge from the eyes or nose should be isolated from other pets and examined by a veterinarian.

Wet Cough vs. Dry Cough in Cats

Veterinarians diagnose the cause of cat coughing using a complete health history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. One clue that pet parents can pick up on at home is the difference between a wet cough versus a dry cough in cats.

The term “wet cough” refers to a cough that brings up phlegm—the thick mucus that is often produced within the respiratory tract in response to infection. Increased production of phlegm helps the body clear viruses, bacteria, disease-fighting cells, and other materials out of the lungs.

Dry coughs, on the other hand, do not produce much phlegm. In cats, dry coughs are typically associated with conditions like asthma, inhaled foreign bodies, and cancer. These distinctions are not ironclad but can help point you and your veterinarian towards a possible diagnosis.

Cat Coughing With Other Symptoms

Coughing tends to occur in combination with other symptoms, which can also help with diagnosis.

Cat Coughing and Sneezing

For example, cat coughing combined with sneezing is often associated with an upper respiratory infection in cats. Infection of the nasal passages leads to sneezing and a snotty nose, but some of the discharge flows back into the throat, producing a cough.

Cat Coughing and Wheezing

Wheezing is a classic sign of asthma in cats and is often seen in combination with coughing and difficult, rapid, or open-mouth breathing.

Cat Coughing Up Hairballs

When a cat’s “cough” brings up a hairball, you’re probably not dealing with a cough at all. While it certainly sounds like your cat is coughing, they are actually retching or gagging, since the hairball is emerging from the digestive tract, not the respiratory tract.

What if My Cat Is Coughing Up Blood?

While the occasional cough in an otherwise healthy cat is no cause to panic, a cat coughing up blood is a potential emergency. Call your vet right away if your cat is coughing up blood.

All of the following can cause a cat to cough up blood:

  • Trauma

  • Cancers that erode into the blood vessels

  • Severe infections

  • Exposure to poisons that hinder normal blood clotting

Treatment for Cat Coughing

Treating a cat’s cough means treating the underlying cause:

  • Irritants: A cough that’s cause by inhaling an irritant will disappear when the irritants are removed from the cat’s environment.

  • Respiratory infections: When caught early, most bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections will resolve when the cat receives appropriate antimicrobial medications. Antiviral medications are less commonly prescribed but are useful under some circumstances.

  • Asthma: Treatment for feline asthma involves removing potential triggers from the cat’s environment and giving inhaled or systemic medications to dilate airways and reduce inflammation and swelling.

  • Pleural effusion: Fluid that accumulates around a cat’s lungs can be removed with a needle and syringe, but additional treatment is sometimes needed to address the fluid’s source and/or prevent it from building up again.

  • Inhaled foreign objects: Bronchoscopy or surgery may be necessary to remove inhaled objects, and antibiotics are often given to prevent or treat secondary infections.

  • Cancer: Cancer that affects the respiratory tract is generally treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, and/or palliative care.

  • Trauma: Some injuries that lead to coughing will heal with medical management, while others require surgery.

  • Heartworm disease: Heartworm prevention is vital for cats because once your cat becomes infected with heartworms, the treatment options for feline heartworm disease are limited.

Coughing cats can also benefit from symptomatic and supportive care (fluid and oxygen therapy, for example).

At home, treatments like regularly wiping away nasal discharge or loosening congestion by placing your cat in a steamy bathroom (if your veterinarian recommends doing so) may also be helpful. Cough suppressants are rarely given to cats.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Prystai