Pet Factsheets

Coughing

Coughing is not an uncommon problem in cats; sometimes this may be a chronic problem where the cat coughs on a daily basis or it may be an acute illness associated with breathing difficulties.  If your cat shows any signs of coughing with breathing difficulty, which may include open mouth-breathing, rapid breathing, wheezing or collapse you should contact your vet urgently. Sometimes coughing can be confused for vomiting hairballs, as cats often retch at the end of an episode of coughing. There are many causes of coughing and many of these can be treated successfully, so investigation and treatment by your vet is advisable. Many causes of coughing if left untreated, can progress over time causing severe consequences for your pet. If your cat develops a cough that does not get better after 2 weeks you should make an appointment to see your vet.

What causes coughing?

The trachea (also known as the wind pipe) is a tube that runs from the throat down into the chest where it branches to form the major airways in the lungs. The normal trachea is a soft tube that is held open by numerous rigid rings of cartilage. Coughing is the result of irritation or inflammation of the sensitive lining of any part of the airways or the lungs; irritation may be within the actual airways or could be due to compression from structures around the airways in the chest cavity, eg a mass pressing on the trachea.

Why is my cat coughing?

In young animals coughing is more likely to be caused by an infection or as a result of the cat inhaling a foreign body (such as a grass blade) or irritation due to smoke or other irritants.  In older animals other causes of coughing, such as tumours, are seen more often. Overall however the most common cause of coughing in all cats is airway disease in the form of feline asthma or chronic bronchitis.  Feline asthma is considered to be an allergic type of airway disease, typically seen in young adult cats, with the Siamese breed being predisposed.  Feline asthma has similarities to asthma in humans. If your cat is coughing it is really important to get your vet to check them over to identify any possible causes that require treatment or to reassure you that nothing more serious is going on.

What other signs might my cat show?

Some cats with a cough may be completely normal in other respects, but this depends entirely on the underlying cause of the cough.  Coughing induced by inhalation of a foreign body (often into the back of the nose) can be associated with an acute onset of coughing, sneezing, retching, distress and frequent pawing of the face and mouth; if the foreign body lodges further down in the lungs the signs may progress to a soft cough with the cat being off colour, having a mild increase in the breathing pattern possibly with a bad smell to their breath. 

A change in meow or noises heard on inward breaths (eg rattling noise like snoring) can sometimes be noticed in cats with coughing, this typically indicates disease of the upper airways (larynx (voicebox) and pharynx (throat)).

Cats suffering with asthma may have frequent bouts of coughing and sometimes have episodes similar to 'asthma attacks' whereby they may be heard to wheeze, have laboured breathing, breath through their mouths and even collapse. The disease is known to wax and wane so the severity of the signs can be variable.  Cats with chronic bronchitis tend to be fairly bright but have a regular, possibly daily, cough.

Cats with pneumonia, eg caused by infections or secondary to inhaling vomit may have a fever and be off their food and feel pretty miserable. Nasal discharge may be present and this can be clear or snotty. In contrast to dogs it is very rare for cats to cough due to heart disease.

Cats will sometimes cough due to compression of the airways caused by masses in the chest cavity, in these cats as well as having a dry cough the cat may have changes in their breathing pattern, with an increase in the rate and effort associated with breathing. It is very important to know that any cat demonstrating a change in their breathing pattern should be seen by the vet urgently; cats often hide their signs of illness very well until the disease has progressed significantly. Rapid breathing, open mouth breathing, and increased breathing effort can be an indicative of life-threatening illness and require emergency veterinary attention.

What will my vet need to do?

When presented with a coughing cat your vet will first want to establish some information that may help to localise which part of the respiratory tract is affected. Questioning you about the nature of the cough (whether it is dry or moist, intermittent or always present) will provide valuable information, so it is important you think about the circumstances in which your cat coughs before you attend the veterinary visit. If you are able to take a video clip of your cat coughing on your mobile phone this may help your vet further. Your vet will want to examine your pet and look for any other signs of illness such as fever which may give a clue as to the cause of the cough. By listening to your cat's chest with a stethoscope your vet will be able to assess heart and lung health. There are many diseases that can cause chronic coughing and your vet will want to rule out the more serious causes of coughing before a final diagnosis is made.

If your cat has breathing difficulties the vet may admit him or her immediately on arrival to the hospital, to be able to give him oxygen to help him breathe more easily; this will be a priority to help stabilise your cat before an examination is performed.

Investigation of coughing may involve x-rays of the trachea and the chest, tests for infectious agents and your vet may want to pass an endoscope (a small tube with a camera on the end) through the trachea and down into the lungs to take some samples.

Can coughing be treated?

The treatment of coughing varies greatly depending on the cause. Medical treatment may be available for coughing related to airway disease and infectious causes of cough; feline asthma and chronic bronchitis are often treated with inhaled medications, similar to humans with asthma. Rarely, if more sinister disease such as cancer is present, other treatment options may be offered including surgery or chemotherapy.  In all cats with coughing, improving airway hygiene at home can help, by reducing irritation of the respiratory tract; this involves preventing exposure of the cat to smoke, aerosols, dust, and air fresheners. Keeping the cat out of the bedroom can also help, as this will have the highest level of human dust and potential irritants such as house dust mites. If your cat has a chronic cough and is overweight, it will also be helpful to start a diet, under your vet's instruction to help reduce your cat's weight.