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Why Is My Cat Coughing?

You thought it was a hairball, but nothing’s coming up…

by Alycia Washington, DVM
May 20, 2021
Siamese cat coughing
Laura Stolfi / Stocksy

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Anyone (even an animal) coughing sets off a five-alarm fire kind of panic these days. Thankfully only a few cats have been reported to be infected with Coronavirus, but there are a number of other concerning reasons why your kitty might be coughing. For felines, true coughing is a reflexive way to keep airways clear. They don’t clear their throats before making an announcement — It’s tuna o’clock! — so when they cough there’s probably something legit triggering it. As an emergency relief veterinarian, I help pet parents figure out the source of their cats’ cough and how to cure it. Here’s what you need to know the next time your kitty starts hacking.

What causes a cat to cough?

Feline Asthma

There are many possible reasons for a cat to cough, but we’ll start with feline asthma and chronic bronchitis since they are the most common causes. In feline asthma, also known as feline allergic bronchitis, allergens trigger respiratory system inflammation, airway spasms, and increased mucus production. Besides coughing, your cat may wheeze or appear winded after exercise. These triggers can be seasonal, like spring ‘pollening,’ or environmental, such as smoke, essential oils, dust, mold, potpourri, and household sprays. 

Feline Bronchitis

Cats that cough due to asthma often seem healthy otherwise. They eat, drink, and cause the usual amount of trouble — knocking things off the coffee table, secretly licking your toothbrush, etc. Despite this, they can have sudden bouts of acute respiratory distress that look like rapid breathing, labored breathing, or panting. Chronic feline bronchitis is super similar to feline asthma but lacks the acute triggers that make asthma so scary. Since both are inflammatory airway diseases, their treatments tend to have similar goals of limiting the immune response — in severe situations, that includes medications like corticosteroids or bronchodilators — and eliminating any secondary infection.

Parasites or Pneumonia

Parasites such as heartworms (yes, cats can get them too) and lungworms can trigger inflammation in the lungs, causing a cough. Pneumonia is another possible cause of coughing. Cats are much better than dogs at closing their airways when they vomit, so aspiration pneumonia is uncommon, but they can still get other bacterial or fungal infections in their lungs.

Cancer or Heart Disease

Just like humans, either a primary tumor or tumors that spread from other areas (metastasis) can develop in a cat’s lungs. Fluid build-up in the space around the lungs can also cause a cat to cough. The most common culprit of this is heart disease, but it can develop secondary to cancer and other diseases.

When should you worry about your cat’s cough?

Labored Breathing

If your cat’s breathing is labored, you should take them to the vet ASAP, even if it means going to the ER late at night. Open-mouthed breathing, exaggerated movement of their chest or belly with each breath, or a pale or blue tinge to their gums or tongue mean that emergency care is needed. 

Chronic Cough

Even if your cat is doing well otherwise, it’s a good idea to go ahead and have them checked out by a vet if your cat has a chronic cough — meaning it lasts for more than two weeks. Cats are secretive and will often hide their illnesses to protect themselves, so even intermittent or subtle problems should be evaluated. If your cat can’t hide that they’re feeling unwell, they are usually pretty sick.

What can you do about your cat’s cough?

Assuming your cat isn’t in a condition that warrants visiting the ER vet, you can try a variety of environmental and lifestyle adjustments to see if they help. The overall goal is to decrease the number of allergens in your home. I don’t need to tell you to quit smoking but cigarette smoke is a super irritating to cats’ lungs — just sayin’. You should probably ditch the potpourri, incense, essential oils, and anything else strongly scented while you’re at it. Don’t let dust accumulate and switch to a dust-free cat litter. An air purifier can also help minimize circulating particles. Staying current on preventative care and keeping your cat’s weight in check will also ward off preventable diseases.

If you’re planning a non-emergency visit to your vet, try to record an episode of your cat coughing ahead of time. A video may help your vet have a better sense of what your cat is doing at home. A physical exam, chest x-rays, bloodwork, and a heartworm test are common first steps in figuring out what’s causing your cat’s cough. Early diagnosis can be key to keeping your kitty healthy and hack-free.

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alycia washington, dvm

Alycia Washington, DVM

Alycia Washington, DVM, is a small animal emergency veterinarian based in North Carolina. She works as a relief veterinarian and provides services to numerous emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington is also a children’s book author and freelance writer with a focus on veterinary medicine. She has a special fondness for turtles, honey bees, and penguins — none of which she treats. In her free time, Dr. Washington enjoys travel, good food, and good enough coffee.