The first time you see or hear a cat cough can be quite disturbing. They can make the most awful sound and you may be puzzled as to what exactly is going on with your pal. There are many things that can cause a cat to cough and it’s important to realize that coughing in cats is never a normal thing.
What is also important to know, though, is the difference between coughing and vomiting up a hairball. In this article, we will discuss how to tell the difference between coughing and spitting up a hairball, causes of coughing, and what you can do about it.
Is it a Cough or a Hairball?
It is so common for cats to have hairballs that pet parents may just assume their cat is trying to “cough up a hairball” if they see them coughing. However, coughing and “coughing up a hairball” are two very different processes. In fact, cats do not cough up hairballs. They vomit up hairballs.
Coughing vs. Vomiting
When a cat coughs, they are coughing because of something affecting their airways, or respiratory system- their throat, trachea, lungs, or bronchi. But hairballs do not accumulate within their airways.
Hairballs sit in their stomachs. When you see a hairball lying on the floor, it is because your cat’s stomach became irritated by it, which stimulated your cat to vomit the hairball out of their stomach, through their esophagus, and onto your floor.
Vomiting involves active abdominal contractions. So, when your cat is vomiting, you will see their entire body almost convulse in a repetitive pattern, their throat pulse in and out, and then they will lift up their head, open their mouth, and expel the contents of their stomach, whether that is food, liquid, or fur.
On the other hand, when a cat is coughing, they usually sit or lie down, extend their head and neck out horizontally in front of them, and make a dry, harsh, throaty sound. Nothing will be produced and they will not leave any stomach contents or any hairballs behind.
For further clarification, here are two videos that show the difference between a cat vomiting up a hairball and a cat coughing:
Causes of Coughing in Cats
As mentioned earlier, coughs are caused by anything that is negatively affecting the airways. In cats, this can be anything from an infection or asthma to cancer. We will briefly discuss some of the most common causes of coughing in cats here.
Feline Asthma (allergies)
By far, the most common cause of coughing in cats is asthma. It is so common that we specifically refer to it as feline asthma. Asthma in cats can be triggered by a number of things- allergies, smoke, scented candles, really any sort of irritant that is floating around in the air.
Even if a cat lives indoor only, pollen from the outside can come into the home with the opening of a door or window, as well as be brought inside on our bodies and clothes. While overweight and obese cats tend to be more commonly affected by asthma, asthma can affect cats of any weight and even any age.
Various infections can cause coughing in cats as well. Viral, bacterial, fungal, and even parasitic infections can cause inflammation in cats’ airways that leads to coughing.
Lungworms tend to live in the lungs and roundworms can migrate to the lungs, specifically affecting the airways of cats.
Heartworms, while more common in dogs, can sometimes cause coughing in cats, but often do not cause any outward symptoms and can be difficult to diagnose.
Pneumonia is when there is overwhelming inflammation within the lungs. Cats can develop pneumonia if a bacterial or viral infection becomes very severe. They can also develop pneumonia if they inhale, or aspirate, food material or any other irritating substance into their airways.
Cancer that has either spread to the lungs or originates in the lungs of cats can cause coughing. Even though cancer may be more common in older cats, young cats can develop it as well.
The most common types of cancers affecting the airways of cats are lymphomas and carcinomas. They can develop cancer anywhere in their airways, even in their trachea.
Foreign Objects or Airway Obstructions
Although rare, there is the potential for a cat to get something lodged in their airway. Cats who eat grass are at risk of a blade of grass getting stuck in their throat or nose, and then migrating down into their trachea or lower airways.
Also, some cats can develop inflammatory polyps (benign growths) in the back of their throat that can obstruct airflow and cause coughing.
Diagnosing the Cause of the Cough
If you notice your cat coughing, the first thing to do is schedule an appointment with their veterinarian. Something you can do that will be helpful for your vet is taking a video of your cat’s cough.
More often than not, our pets will act completely normal while at the vet and not show any of their symptoms. Taking a video can be priceless when your vet is trying to diagnose your cat’s condition.
Physical Exam and Observation
Your vet will do a thorough physical exam, listen to your cat’s heart and lungs, and monitor how your cat is breathing at rest. Depending on the severity and frequency of the cough, as well as your cat’s age and general health, your vet may recommend just monitoring the cough to see if it gets worse.
If the vet suspects your cat may be developing feline asthma, they may just recommend you keep a close eye on your cat to see if it gets worse, as treatment often isn’t initiated unless it becomes an on-going problem.
Aside from physical exam, the best way to diagnose the cause of coughing is to take x-rays of your cat’s chest and/or throat. For most cats, an x-ray can easily be performed on the same day of your visit to the vet.
You won’t be allowed to watch the x-ray being taken due to safety concerns for radiation exposure. But it is a simple process as long as your cat is tolerant of being held on their side and then on their back for a very short period of time.
Most vet clinics these days have digital x-ray machines. This means they can even show you the x-ray on a computer before you leave their office. They may send the x-ray off to a specialist for interpretation, but most vets can at least give you a preliminary idea of what they suspect is causing your cat to cough.
Fecal Exam and Bloodwork
If a parasite or a cancerous process is suspected as being the cause of your cat’s cough, your vet may recommend checking a fecal sample and/or checking bloodwork on your cat.
Fecal exams can help rule in or out parasites, while bloodwork can give an indication of if a cancerous process may be going on. It’s not always clear cut, though, as bloodwork can sometimes be completely normal and parasites may be missed if the right amount or portion of the stool isn’t submitted.
Treatment for Coughing in Cats
The treatment will, of course, depend on the diagnosis or suspected diagnosis.
Feline asthma is treated with a course of steroids and at-home inhaler use. Yes, cats can use inhalers! There’s even a special contraption to help you give your cat a puff of the medicine in inhalers, called an Aerokat Chamber.
If your cat is diagnosed with asthma, you’ll also need to stop burning candles, using incense, and will need to get rid of any other aerosolized irritants that may be floating around in the home.
Cigarette smoke can be a major inciting cause, so if you are a smoker it would be best to try to limit smoking to only when being outside and away from your cat. Using dust-free litter in their litter box will also be beneficial.
Infections caused by parasites are treated with the appropriate anti-parasitic medication, while pneumonia is often treated with antibiotics.
If the problem is an airway obstruction from a polyp or a foreign body, the treatment will require sedating your cat to properly remove the inciting object
If your cat is unfortunately diagnosed with cancer, the treatment may consist of anything from chemotherapy to radiation therapy or surgery. For certain types of cancers, the treatment may even consist of just maintaining quality of life, pain control, and good at-home nursing care.
What causes coughing in cats?
Asthma, allergies, infections, parasites, polyps, cancer, and foreign objects can all cause coughing in cats.
If my cat coughed only a couple of times, do I really need to take them to the vet?
Yes- if your cat has never coughed before and they only coughed even once or twice, you should take them in to be evaluated by a vet. Airway problems in cats should never be ignored and while your vet may recommend a watch and see approach, it is always best to be on the safe side in case it is something serious.
How do I know if they were just trying to get up a hairball?
If your cat was coughing and they didn’t produce anything (nothing came out of their mouth), they were not trying to cough up a hairball. Coughing is very different than vomiting in cats (see videos above) and cats will vomit to get rid of a hairball, not cough.
Coughing in cats is never normal. If you notice your cat coughing for the first time, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. There are many different things that can cause cats to cough, but feline asthma is by far the most common cause. If it seems your cat is struggling to breath or the coughing has not subsided within one minute, you should take your cat to the vet right away.
Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️