Your cat meows, your cat purrs, your cat….coughs.
If your cat has a cough that doesn’t go away after a couple days, it’s a sign that there’s a problem. Just like humans, animals cough because the body is trying to get rid of irritants in the throat, windpipe or lungs. They also cough to keep from inhaling fluids, food or other foreign bits into their lungs. Coughing is a powerful reflex designed to protect your cat’s airways.
So, when your cat has a persistent cough, you need to take action.
What Is A “Cat Cough”?
Surprisingly, cats don’t cough nearly as often as other animals. But when they do, you need to distinguish between a cough and other similar sounds.
For instance, observe carefully when your cat is coughing – or… is he sneezing? wheezing? gagging (coughing up hairballs), retching or vomiting after a coughing bout that brings up mucus? Also keep a look out for shortness of breath or respiratory distress.
In cases of feline asthma, cats tend to breathe with their mouths open, and you’ll see bluish or gray tongue or gums. (If you see this, the attack may be a medical emergency and you’ll need to act quickly)
Notice if the cough is dry or moist, and/or whether it’s accompanied by a stuffed nose or fever.
You’ll need to document all of these symptoms so that you can relay this information to your veterinarian. This will be important extra information that will help him/her make a proper diagnosis since “cat coughs” can have many causes.
My Cat Is Coughing. What Could Be The Problem?
There could many causes for chronic coughing, so let’s focus on a few of the most common:
Cats groom themselves often and end up ingesting hair in the process (which forms a hairball). To get rid of a hairball that forms in his stomach after grooming, your cat may need to cough it up. This condition is normal and doesn’t require a veterinarian’s assistance – even if it sounds awful while he’s coughing it up! But watch out – he may have something ELSE stuck in his throat, so if he is struggling, get to the vet for assistance.
Also, reduce/stop the usage of chemical cleaners in your home (regarding indoor cats) and chemicals in your yard (regarding outdoor cats). This will help to reduce the toxins and compounds that your cat may ingest during his self-grooming process. Just consider, whatever gets on his hair will be ingested into his system when he grooms himself. Those toxins can cause a mild upset or in some cases, severe health issues for your cat. Think on this. Your cat’s nasal area is just a few inches off the ground…so whatever you put on the ground, floor, yard etc…impacts your cat immediately!
It’s not that different from a cold you or I would get – coughing, sneezing, fever, watery eyes and runny nose. Cats’ noses can fluctuate between wet and dry throughout a normal day, so that is not always an indicator of an issue; however, if there is discharge from her nose, that can be a sign of an illness. Are her ears warmer than usual? As a good indicator, a cat’s ears help regulate their body temperature; however, unusually warm ears may indicate a fever. And, just like your cold, it will eventually clear up on its own.
If your cat has allergies, she may cough to rid her system of the irritation and inflammation of her airways. Other symptoms might include sneezing, watery eyes, wheezing, itchiness, and runny nose. But unlike the signs of a cat cold, allergic cats don’t have fever.
What is your cat allergic to? It could be cigarette smoke, pollen, mold, cat litter dust, perfume, or a number of other things. Take note of where your cat likes to nest/sleep — has that area been treated with anything? That treatment may be an irritant to your cat.
Also, laundry detergent residue or fabric softener on her bedding after you washed it may not agree with your cat’s respiratory system. It’s always a good idea to wash your cat’s bedding with just plain water after the wash cycle (that includes detergent) particularly if your cat shows any of the problems mentioned. If you notice your cat having problems breathing, get him to a vet quickly, as an asthma attack can have serious consequences.
Respiratory Tract Disease
This cause is very common in cats. Bronchopulmonary disease includes conditions like bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. Constant coughing is one major sign of a respiratory infection; your cat will expectorate phlegm, have a fever and possibly have difficulty breathing. You’ll need to work with your vet on this one.
Fungal Lung Infection
Your cat could pick up a fungus from the soil, and coughing is a common symptom of a fungal lung infection. A healthy cat may recover on her own but be watchful as a trip to the vet may be indicated.
If your cat has heart-worms, hookworms or roundworms (ugh!), one of the symptoms will be coughing. It’s a moist cough, and your cat will also stop eating, lose weight, be lethargic, vomit and have diarrhea. That’s why you must ensure you get preventive treatment from your vet. The treatment is particularly easy and if your cat spends much time outside, it’s probably a good idea to treat for worms on a routine basis since they are easily picked up.
Obesity may be a cause although this is less common. Keep your cat active to keep him healthy! Maintaining a healthy weight is important! There are many inexpensive cat toys available or you can make your own cat toy by sewing up a scrap piece of cotton, filling it with catnip and sewing up the opening. This will keep your cat amused and moving for hours!
If you cat must wear a collar, ensure that it is loose enough that it will slip off if it gets caught on something (so it is not a choke hazard to your cat and that it will not cause your cat to die by hanging!). If your cat cannot slip out of the collar then it is too tight and can cause damage and scaring to his larynx and windpipe, it can dig into his skin and cause coughing.
Other Less Common Causes of Coughing
These would include lung cancer and heart disease. Again, your vet will be the one to determine this one.
When To See A Veterinarian
If your cat coughs occasionally and it doesn’t result in any phlegm or sputum being spit up, it’s probably nothing to worry about.
But if the cough lasts more than a day or two, recurs often, produces phlegm or sputum, is severe enough to cause discomfort, or if your cat is losing weight or acts sick, you should definitely take her to the vet. And obviously, you should high-tail it to the vet if your cat shows signs of not being able to breathe. Cats are very stoic creatures so too often she is in distress before symptoms are easy to see. Cats, just as humans, bounce back more quickly when first aid is provided before they seriously ill.
Since coughing is a symptom for so many causes, it’s difficult to make the right diagnosis without running some tests, which only a veterinarian can do. In addition, any details you can tell the vet about your cat’s symptoms, behavior and history will help pinpoint the underlying cause of the cough. How often does she cough? What time of day? Does it sound wet or dry? What was she doing before she started coughing (eating? exercising? lying on the couch? lying under the bed? lying in the laundry basket?)?
If the vet prescribes any medication(s) like cough suppressants, antibiotics, steroids or other drugs, be sure to follow the dosing directions to the letter. Cats can be very sensitive to drugs, as well as natural or homeopathic remedies – so watch for your cat’s reactions to the meds after you give them to him.
One Thing You Should NEVER Do
Do NOT give your kitty human medications to alleviate his symptoms. Even if you give her small amounts of over-the-counter cold medications or ibuprofen, aspirin or acetaminophen, these can be toxic to her!
It’s probably not possible to protect your kitty from every possible cause of coughs, but there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances:
- Don’t smoke inside the house.
- Use cat litter that doesn’t create dust.
- Avoid things that can irritate the lungs, like perfumes, certain household cleaners (see our blog on these), room fresheners, hairspray, scented laundry detergent, fabric softener etc.
- If your cat must wear a collar, ensure it is not too tight.
- Make sure you take measures to prevent internal parasites, especially if you live somewhere with mosquitos (which carry the heart-worm).