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March 22, 2022 |0 min read

Why Is My Cat Coughing? 7 Possible Causes

Written by

Sharilyn Vera

The familiar sound of your kitty’s meow is one of the best parts of coming home after a long day. Whether your baby mews or chatters, those vocalizations are music to a cat lover’s ears. 

But what should you do if those normal noises give way to coughs? When your feline’s usual chirping sounds more like choking, it’s time to investigate.

Cat communication should involve howling and hissing, not hacking up a lung. If you’re asking yourself, “Why is my cat coughing?” you’ve come to the right place. Here are seven potential reasons your feline is feeling phlegmy.

#1 Hairballs

As a cat owner, you’ve probably heard that dreaded sound from the other room—the hack-hack-hack of your kitty passing a hairball. Once you listen to it a few times, you can generally distinguish it from the sound of cats coughing, but they often sound similar.

Cat hairballs are a byproduct of kitty bath time. While some cats enjoy getting wet, most stick to the more “traditional” way of staying clean: licking themselves.

And because cats like to clean themselves throughout the day, you can understand how easy it is for frequent furballs to form.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) hairballs are a perfectly natural part of cat life. Coughing up a clump of fur every week or two is normal. Cat hairballs only pose a health risk if they grow too large within a cat’s digestive tract, at which point surgery may be necessary.

To reduce the chance of an unsightly wad of fur on your new rug, you can brush or comb your cat every few days. By helping your fur baby with their grooming routine, you can limit hairballs in cats and spend some quality time together.

#2 A Tight Collar

If you’ve ever worn a shirt with a tight neckline or a too-small bowtie, you know how uncomfortable it is to have your windpipe restricted. Now imagine if you didn’t have thumbs to take it off!

When your cat’s collar is too tight for too long, the pressure on their windpipe can cause damage. Eventually, this damage can lead to a kitty cat cough.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

Of course, a bigger collar can reduce the pressure on your kitty’s throat and keep them from coughing. But if your cat is likely to slip out of a loose collar when they’re out and about, there are other ways to make sure your outdoor cat is identifiable.

Instead of a collar with a name and phone number, consider:

  • Microchipping – While at the vet, you can ask them to insert a tiny non-toxic chip inserted between your feline’s shoulder blades with a needle. The microchip stores your name and address in a database, so anyone who finds your lost cat can easily return them to you.

#3 Allergies

That’s right: Cats can have allergies, too. While felines are no strangers to food and flea allergies, these irritations don’t cause coughing. However, cats can suffer from “hay fever” when certain airborne allergens enter their lungs, including:

  • Pollen
  • Grass
  • Mold
  • Dust
  • Perfume
  • Vapors from cleaning products
  • Tobacco smoke

These environmental allergies can cause coughing, sneezing, snoring, and general itchiness.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

If you suspect your kitty is sneezing up a storm due to seasonal allergies, your first step should be checking in with a vet to confirm. After all, allergy symptoms are similar to those of other health issues.

Most of the time, eliminating allergens from your home is the best way to treat feline allergies. For example, using kitty litter with minimal dust can keep your cat (and you) from coughing and wheezing. In more severe cases, your vet may prescribe allergy medications.

Respiratory allergies in cats are relatively rare, but they do happen—especially in outdoor cats and felines with asthma.

#4 Feline Asthma

Asthma is the most commonly diagnosed cause of coughing in cats. Feline asthma occurs when your kitty’s airways become chronically inflamed, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches their lungs. Airborne allergens are the usual trigger of an asthma attack.

You can often identify feline asthma by studying your cat’s behavior. Typical signs include:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Wheezing sounds
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Unusual up and down movement of the abdomen
  • Shortness of breath

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

As with people, there is no cure for asthma in cats. However, as anyone with an inhaler will tell you, treating and managing asthma is relatively straightforward.

The usual treatment approach is administering corticosteroid drugs and bronchodilators to reduce inflammation. Your vet can provide these drugs in the form of an injection, oral tablets, or even a little kitty inhaler.

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#5 Pneumonia

Once asthma and other minor affiliations have been ruled out, it’s time to turn to the more severe (and more rare) causes of cats coughing.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and may sometimes be mistaken as an upper respiratory infection. There are two types of pneumonia that can send your cat into a coughing fit:

  • Infectious pneumonia – When infectious agents like fungi, bacteria, or viruses enter your cat's lungs, they can become infected. These agents come from your cat’s surroundings, other cats, or other infections in the body.
  • Aspiration pneumonia – This kind of pneumonia involves breathing foreign matter into the cat's lungs. For example, your cat could inhale a small piece of plastic, part of a plant, or some of its own vomit.

Both types of pneumonia typically lead to fever, yellow-green nasal discharge, and an increased breathing rate and heart rate.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

Regardless of the kind of pneumonia your furry friend contracts, treatment will likely involve a short stay at the animal hospital. A vet may need to give your cat:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungal drugs
  • Antiviral drugs
  • Oxygen supplementation
  • IV fluids

After the trip to the hospital, expect your cat to need oral medications for several weeks and another checkup or two down the road.

#6 Heartworm

Heartworms are parasites that cause a range of issues, and one of the many symptoms is coughing. The worm larvae enters your cat’s bloodstream via mosquito bite, where it can grow up to a foot long inside your tomcat’s ticker!

It may seem odd that a worm in the heart would irritate the lungs, but heartworm disease is first and foremost a pulmonary issue. When the parasite reaches maturity, it spreads to the arteries that deliver blood from the heart to the lungs.

Heartworm occurs mostly in warm, humid areas buzzing with mosquitoes, and it’s accompanied by other symptoms like:

  • Diarrhea
  • Exhaustion
  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting of food and/or blood

If your kitty’s cough doesn’t come with these other problems and you don’t see many mosquitoes (lucky you!), you can likely rule out heartworm disease.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

In some cases, heartworm disease will resolve on its own. Your cat’s immune response can develop resistance to the parasite and kill it off naturally.

Unfortunately, if the problem doesn’t go away, there’s not much you can do to treat heartworm in cats. As such, the best treatment is prevention.

Medications like ivermectin, milbemycin, and selamectin can help protect your feline from heartworm disease. Chat with your vet about these options—especially if you live in a muggy climate.

#7 Airway or Lung Cancer

Several kinds of rare cancer can trigger coughing fits in cats. When a tumor mass blocks part of the larynx or trachea—whether malignant or benign—your kitty may experience:

  • Coughing
  • Noisy or labored breathing
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of voice

Even rarer are primary or metastatic tumors in the lungs. However, coughing is a less common symptom of lung cancer in cats. Instead, you’ll likely notice difficulty breathing, wheezing, and lethargy.

Keep in mind that the average age for a primary lung tumor diagnosis in cats is 12 years. If your feline is on the younger side, you can probably rule out lung cancer.

How You Can Help Your Feline Friend

Regular vet checkups can help you catch signs of cancer early. X-rays and CT scans can sometimes spot tumors as they form, and explaining any noticeable symptoms to your vet allows them to rule out other illnesses.

Should you end up with a confirmed cancer diagnosis, don’t lose hope for your furry friend! Larynx and trachea tumors can often be removed through surgery, while the recommended course of action for lung cancer is usually radiation therapy.

Stay on Top of Your Coughing Cat’s Health

When your cat has a frog in its throat, it might be nothing more than a tickle. But it could also be a sign of something more concerning. Because coughing is more of an indicator of an underlying cause than an issue itself, it’s vital to keep track of your feline’s wellbeing any way you can.

One way to stay ahead of the curve is to use a color-changing litter like PrettyLitter. Our specially formulated silica litter can warn you of certain illnesses and infections, even before your feline starts showing signs of sickness.

To learn more about the benefits of health-monitoring cat litter and other cat health tips, check out our blog, Paw & Tail.

Sources: 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The Danger of Hairballs. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/danger-hairballs 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Feline Asthma: A Risky Business for Many Cats. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-asthma-risky-business-many-cats 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Pneumonia. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/pneumonia 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Heartworm in Cats. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/heartworm-cats 

Merck Veterinary Manual. Cancers and Tumors of the Lung and Airway in Cats. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-cats/cancers-and-tumors-of-the-lung-and-airway-in-cats

Written by

Sharilyn Vera

Sharilyn is a proud cat owner, long time storyteller and researcher. Her work spans beloved podcasts, television shows, media outlets, and independent documentaries. She likes to strike a balance between education and comedy, which you can hopefully tell when you read her articles!

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