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Coughing in Cats: Common Causes

Written By
6 min read

Updated - Jul 22nd, 2022

Just like humans, cats will occasionally cough. You may think your cat is coughing up a hairball, but cats cough for many reasons, not necessarily just for hairballs. If a kitty coughs once in a blue moon, then there are likely no issues, however, if it’s happening frequently, a vet visit may be in order.

Let’s look at the reasons cats cough and whether or not you should be concerned. 

Why do cats cough?

Cats cough for many reasons. Coughing is a normal response to irritants in their airways or throat.

Cats’ tongues differ from most other animals. It’s covered with spiny barbs called filiform papillae that face backward, sending whatever they take into their mouths towards their throat for swallowing. It’s handy for grooming themselves or licking meat off the bones of their prey, but it can cause something like grass or hair to get stuck and irritate the mouth or throat pretty easily, making your cat cough.

Healthy cats will cough occasionally, just like we do. But when they cough frequently, it may be cause for concern.

Coughing vs. vomiting in cats

Coughing comes from your kitty’s respiratory system. The respiratory system is everything from their nose to their lungs and includes nasal cavities, their throat, voice box, windpipe, and lungs which are filled with air passages that are the same structurally as our lungs.

Coughing forces air out of a cat’s lungs to clear an irritant. It’s different from vomiting. There is dramatic movement in the chest and belly, and your cat’s head will lower, allowing the neck to be straight out front.

The respiratory system contains cells that secrete mucus. If the underlying cause of the cough increases mucus production, you’ll likely hear the mucus rattling at the back of the throat, and the cat will swallow after coughing. If not, you will hear a dry cough that sounds like a honk or wheeze with no swallowing. This differs greatly from vomiting.

When a cat vomits, there is a dramatic movement of the whole body, called retching. You’re seeing the contractions of the stomach trying to expel its contents. Your cat will retch for a few seconds before they vomit up the offending content. In coughing, there may be some spittle or mucus droplets, but not the stomach contents. 

Common causes of cat coughing

Many times, when pet parents hear their kitty coughing, they think it’s a hairball. Sometimes this can be true, but there can be many reasons for coughing, from something stuck in the back of the throat to bacterial or viral infections. Let’s check out the most common causes of coughing.

Foreign body in the throat or nose: Anything your cat tries to eat can get caught in the throat or inside the nose, causing inflammation. Inflammation causes the production of mucus and a cough, sneezing, or gagging results. Plants, kibble, prey parts, a furball, or even a piece of a small toy, can cause this to happen.

Parasites: When cats eat birds or rodents or drink water containing worms (roundworms and heartworms), it can affect their respiratory systems. The worms migrate to the lungs, causing inflammation that results in coughing. Outdoor cats are at higher risk for this parasitic lungworm inflammation. Heartworm disease in cats can be life-threatening. 

Viral respiratory infection: Feline Herpesvirus and feline calicivirus are chronic infectious diseases that are common in multi-cat environments like shelters or rescues. Both are highly contagious to other cats and can cause serious upper respiratory inflammation and infections that can sometimes result in coughing.

Feline Asthma: Also called chronic bronchitis, feline asthma is caused by anything that triggers airway inflammation, including parasites, pollen, cat litter, second-hand smoke, chemicals, or any substance your cat may react to. Once the allergens get in, the air passages will narrow, making breathing difficult. Your cat’s body will produce antibodies that attack the allergens, causing inflammation and mucus production. 

Signs of an asthma attack are difficulty breathing, pale gums, and rapid open-mouth breathing. Wheezing, coughing and vomiting are also signs of asthma. Medications can help, but proper diagnosis is necessary first.

Pleural Effusion: Fluid accumulating in a cat’s chest can happen for many reasons, including cancer, trauma, heartworms, or heart disease, to name a few. When fluid accumulates in the chest cavity, it puts pressure on the lungs, and they aren’t able to expand properly.

Symptoms are difficulty breathing, open-mouth breathing, and coughing as the cat struggles to breathe. Symptoms will worsen if left untreated. A visit with the veterinarian is needed.

Trauma: When a cat’s body suffers from trauma that causes bleeding inside the air passages and chest cavity, breathing can become difficult, resulting in coughing as your cat struggles to breathe. This type of trauma is life-threatening, requiring immediate veterinary care.

Bordetellosis: Bordetella is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can spread between dogs and cats through direct and indirect contact. It is an inflammation of the trachea and bronchi that is very common in animals from shelters, rescues, and breeding environments.

Symptoms are coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, and nasal discharge, that can lead to pneumonia. Most cats have mild symptoms but can become long-term carriers.

Pneumonia: The lungs become inflamed, resulting in less oxygenation of the blood. This can happen through aspiration, meaning the cat inhaled something into the lungs that shouldn’t be there, like aspirating food or fluids while vomiting.

Infectious pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungal infections. It comes on quickly with symptoms like fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, and struggling to breathe. Some cats cough with pneumonia. Veterinarian care is required for cases of feline pneumonia.

Polyps: Nasopharyngeal polyps are non-cancerous tissue masses (polyps) in the upper respiratory tract. They are most common in kittens and young cats and originate in the inner ear. As they grow, they can partially block the cavity in the back of the mouth, causing respiratory problems.

Symptoms are labored breathing, nasal discharge, head shaking, sneezing and difficulty swallowing. You may also hear your cat reverse sneezing as it tries to clear the blockage. 

Cancer: A large mass or tumor growing in a cat’s chest cavity can push against the trachea or air passages in the lungs, making it very difficult for the lungs to expand. There is also throat, windpipe, or lung cancers that will cause a cat to cough and struggle to breathe. Veterinarian care is always necessary when cancer is involved.

When should you worry about your cat’s cough?

Most cats will only cough once in a while. But when it happens frequently or in conjunction with other signs of illness, there may be an underlying issue going on. A vet visit is the best way to keep your cat healthy. 

The following symptoms should be cause for concern:

  • Frequent coughing, either dry or wet
  • Decrease in activity
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hiding or behavioral changes
  • Breath rate of over 60 breaths per minute
  • Exaggerated breathing with dramatic movement in the belly and chest
  • Open-mouth breathing not associated with heavy exercise or stress
  • Pale gums
  • Racing/pounding heartrate
  • Breathing with head and neck extended

Depending on the underlying cause of the coughing, treatment options may include antibiotics, an oral inhaler or antihistamines, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, and cough suppressant medicines. Your veterinarian will examine your cat carefully, may order some diagnostic tests, and may take some x-rays of the lungs. It’s helpful to take a video of your cat coughing so your vet can see exactly what’s happening.

A coughing cat can be worrisome, but most coughs are normal unless they become more frequent or other symptoms are present. 

Many pet parents don’t consider pet insurance until their pets need it. If you need to bring your cat to the vet due to an unexpected accident or illness, pet insurance can help you get your sweet kitty the care they need. Don’t wait – fetch a quote today! 

Writer, Mom of a Fab Fur Fam of Five
Lynn is a writer and long-time Learning & Development Manager at a large PNW retailer. She's also mom to 3 dogs & 2 cats!