Why is My Cat Coughing: Hairballs, Asthma or Sickness?

The first time you hear your cat coughing, you might not even realise what it’s doing. Cat coughs are strange sounds to the uninitiated. It can seem like your cat’s about to be sick, but then stops before the point they’d normally vomit. Your cat probably looks confused about it too – they don’t normally cough, and when they do, it’s a sign that something has irritated their throat. So what makes it happen?

Chances are, it’s nothing serious. Whilst cat coughing can be a sign of underlying illness – and those have been studied extensively –  there are a whole host of factors that can cause it. We realise it can be upsetting and unsettling to watch your cat cough and not understand why. In this article, we’re going to look at the potential causes of coughing in cats, and when it’s appropriate to contact a vet. With a bit of luck, you can make a couple of environmental changes, and the problem will fix itself.

Before we look at the more common reasons, though, here’s a little thing to consider. Is their collar too tight? Too much pressure on your cat’s windpipe can cause damage, and a cough is a warning sign. You should be able to get two fingers between the collar and your cat’s neck. Not all collars are equal! See our cat collar guide for more information.

Is My Cat Coughing Because Of Hairballs?

cat coughing

This longhaired chap looks alarmed. He’s probably just found out he’s more prone to hair balls. Image courtesy of Pixabay

There’ll be pretty solid evidence for that if it is. It will eventually cough up a hairball! Hairballs are a problem for almost every cat to a greater or lesser extent. If your cat stops coughing after it’s produced a hairball, there’s nothing to worry about in terms of its health. There are, however, things that you can do to stop hairballs from forming in the first place. Although they’re harmless, they’re not exactly comfortable for your cat!

  • Change your cat’s grooming regime. Cats rely on their fur to regulate their temperature. As you already know, that means they have more in cold months, and less when it’s warm. Your cat will inform you that it’s molting by helpfully leaving fur all over your floor and furniture! They groom themselves as best they can, but they can’t always completely deal with the excess fur themselves. That’s where you come in. Stroking alone won’t fix it. Consider getting a special cat grooming tool to help the process along. They range from the gentle to the extreme, and there’s one for every type of cat!
  • Try breed specific cat food. If your cat is a common mog6gie, then this won’t apply. However if they’re a gentlemen or lady of breeding, they may be more or less prone to hairballs depending on their background. Some cats are genetically more prone to hairballs than others. Fortunately, there are breed specific cat foods which are specially designed to help with the problem.
  • Consider coat conditioner. Some cats are just bad at grooming, full stop. They either overdo it and leave themselves with bald patches, or under-do it and end up with an overgrown mop! Fortunately, there were experts around to invent coat conditioner. Irregular coat shedding can be a sign of an oil imbalance within the body, and coat conditioner can be introduced to your cat’s diet to restore the balance. In fact, we consider it to be an essential cat health aid.

Is My Cat Coughing Because Of Asthma?

If your cat is statistically unlucky, it might be. Experts estimate that 1% of all cats in the United States of America suffer with feline asthma. It’s been the subject of extensive scientific study, and new research is carried out all the time into potential treatments. It’s believed that outdoor cats are more prone to asthma than those who stay indoors, and that’s purely down to the elements they’re exposed to. Asthma can be a serious condition in cats – in some cases fatal – and it’s important to seek a vet’s advice at the earliest opportunity if you suspect your pet may have asthma. If you have a cat coughing persistently, and it goes on for more than a couple of days, it’s time to make that phone call.

Just because your cat is coughing a lot doesn’t mean it has asthma. Asthma is usually accompanied by other symptoms, just like it is in humans. Wheezing is one of them, as is open-mouthed breathing and blueness of the gums. If your cat is gasping for breath, there’s something seriously wrong. 

If the cause of your cat coughing is ultimately determined to be asthma, the bad news is that it can’t be cured. It can’t be cured in humans either – it’s just carefully managed. Your vet will be able to recommend a course of treatment to help with the condition, but there are practical steps you can take at home to help. Ultimately, asthma is an inflammation of a cat’s airways, causing them to shrink, and contributing to the coughing. Certain things aggravate it, so here’s a list of what to avoid:-

  • Cigarette smoke. We know your cat doesn’t smoke, so if they’re breathing this in, it must be coming from you. Stop smoking, it’s bad for you! It does untold damage to human lungs, so just imagine what it does to a cat. If you must smoke, always go outdoors and away from your cat. Never smoke in an enclosed space with your pet.
  • cat coughing

    Cats do not appreciate getting a face full of perfume or deodorant, whether they have asthma or not! Image courtesy of Flickr

    Perfume. Ever walked into a room where someone’s just sprayed deodorant, air freshener or perfume? Made you cough, didn’t it? And you have full sized human lungs! If you don’t want to see your cat coughing, spray it away from them. Always check around yourself, and make sure your furry friend isn’t too close when you spray.

  • Cat litter dust. Cat litter comes in a variety of different forms, and can be made from several different materials. Some of it can break up into a fine powder when its been used, or dug into. While that might be fine for a healthy cat, a cat with asthma can be irritated by breathing it in. See our cat litter guide for more information on the options available.
  • Obesity. Just as it does in humans, excess weight causes respiratory problems in cats. The extra fat puts pressure on the lungs and the airways, and makes it harder to breathe. It’s not good for cats to be overweight anyway, but doubly so for asthmatic cats. Make the necessary changes in your cat’s diet and exercise regimen to bring their weight down.
  • Mold. Mold around the house is a health hazard to people and animals alike. Black mold can actually be fatal in both cases. It gives off spores, which permeate the lungs and lead to health problems. If your cat already has asthma, mold spores can be absolutely deadly. It’s important for both you and any other people or pets in your household that mold infestations are dealt with as soon as they’re identified. Get expert help if necessary.

Is My Cat Coughing Because It’s Sick?

Asthma is a sickness in itself, but there are a number of other health problems that can cause cat coughing. They range from the mild to the potentially fatal. That’s why it’s so important that if your cat has been coughing for more than a few days, you seek the advice of a vet. Hopefully they’ll tell you it’s nothing awful. In the worst case, the sooner you can get treatment for your cat, the better.

Although not an exhaustive list, cat coughing can be a sign of allergies, lung infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, heartworms, heart failure, lung cancer, infection or parasitic disease. It can even be caused by advanced cases of worms. So how are you supposed to know what the problem is?

The answer is that you aren’t. Diagnosis is a job for your vet. There are some basics that might help you to put your mind at rest about the more serious conditions, though. One of the indicators of the severity of the cough is whether or not it has produce, for example. If it’s a dry cough, chances are that it’s down to something irritating the throat. If the cough produces phlegm and mucus, that’s a sign of infection. As a very basic guide:-

  • Cat coughing along with wheezing is a sign that your cat may have asthma.
  • Cat coughing along with sneezing is likely to be a respiratory issue. This could be cat flu, or an infection.
  • Cat coughing along with weight loss, behavioural changes or lethargy may be far more serious. These symptoms could indicate advanced parasitic infestation, or even cancer.

What Do I Need To Do?

cat coughing

Sometimes, it’s best to go straight to the vet. Even if your cat gives you evil stares like this. Image courtesy of RAF Lakenheath

Unless it’s something basic, like your cat’s collar being tight, our advice is to always see a vet if your cat has a persistent cough. If it doesn’t clear up after 2-3 days, then something’s wrong, and you need to find out what it is. The more information you can give to your vet, the faster and more accurately they’ll be able to assist you. Take note of how and when your cat is coughing, and be ready to provide your vet with the following:-

    1. Is your cat’s cough wet or dry? This relates to both the sound, and whether anything is produced when your cat coughs.
    2. When does your cat cough? If your cat mostly coughs at night, that could indicate an issue with the heart, or fluid on the lungs.
    3. Does anything seem to provoke it? If, for example, your cat only coughs when it’s been running around or playing, that could be heart disease. By contrast, if coughing only happens after eating, that could be a physical issue with the throat.

Giving your vet the answers to these questions in advance of your appointment can speed up the process. It might give your vet enough information to know what tests need to be performed, and narrow down potential treatments. Everything that’s needed could be ready and waiting when you and your cat arrive to see them. Your vet will likely be keen to perform a physical examination, so it would help if your cat was as calm as possible. A good cat carrier can help with this. It’s entirely possible he may even refer your cat for radiography and scans. Any details of your cat’s medical history would be great to take with you. You never know what tiny detail may prove to be all important.

What Happens Next?

It really depends on what the cause of your cat’s coughing is. There are a variety of treatments available, depending on the root cause of the problem. Antibiotics may be all it takes to solve the issue. They’re a wonder drug for cats, just as they are for people! If your cat has asthma, you may find that the vet prescribes a course of corticosteroids. Steroids are often used to successfully manage asthma in humans, and they’re used on cats for the exact same reason. If parasites are found to be behind the cough, then one of a great many different anti-parasite drugs could be put into action. Alternatively, it may turn out to be plain old hairballs after all, and you’ll be sent home with some advice on dietary changes to help break them down and stop them from happening.

The prognosis for your pet is dependant on what’s making the cough happen in the first place. We’d love to be able to tell you what was wrong right here and now, but although we believe we’re very well informed, we’re not vets. Sometimes, getting professional help is the best and only course of action. If your cat has a persistent cough, this is definitely one of those times. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s best never to take chances with your pet’s heath.

Thanks for stopping by and reading this article. We hope the information was useful to you. If it was, why not share it with your cat loving friends?

Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run Catmart.net, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I’m not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I’m either spending time with my cats or my other half… Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!