Coughing in Cats

Key Takeaways

Cats cough in the same way and for many of the same reasons as humans. 

• Anything causing irritation, inflammation, or obstruction of the respiratory tract can cause coughing

• Coughing in cats can be confused with vomiting or gagging

• Many conditions cause coughing, ranging from benign issues such as a brief irritation (e.g. by hair or grass in the throat) to more severe conditions such as viral infection, heartworm infection, pneumonia, or cancer

Persistent coughing or coughing accompanied by other signs of illness warrants veterinary attention

• Diagnosis requires physical examination and assessment of other symptoms, and may require blood work and diagnostic imaging

• Many of the common causes of coughing are treated with medication

• Some of the more serious causes of coughing may not respond to treatment and have a poor prognosis

A Closer Look: What is Coughing in Cats?

Coughing may be mild and temporary, having benign causes such as throat irritation. Coughing that persists or is accompanied by other symptoms of illness warrants veterinary attention. 

Coughing symptoms can vary in severity and duration. Occasional, brief coughing by an otherwise healthy cat is not cause for concern, but persistent coughing or coughing along with other signs of illness such as lethargy, lack of appetite, eye and nasal discharge, or difficulty breathing indicates a more severe problem.

Coughing may be characterized as dry (non-productive) or wet (productive). Non-productive coughing is more likely to indicate asthma, foreign body irritation, or cancer. Productive coughing is more often associated with infections, due to phlegm.

Possible Causes

Coughing may be caused by many conditions that cause irritation, inflammation, or obstruction of the respiratory tract. 

Respiratory infections can cause bronchitis, and pneumonia–symptoms of which may include coughing. Such infections may be caused by:

Viruses, including

• Feline herpesvirus • Feline calicivirus

Bacteria, including

• Mycobacteriosis (tuberculosis) • Yersinia pestis (plague)

Bordetella bronchiseptica

Fungi, including

• Cryptococcosis • Blastomycosis

Parasites, including

• Lungworm • Lung flukes • Heartworm

Coughing may also be caused by:

Allergen or toxin exposure:

• Allergic pneumonitis

• Essential oil toxicosis

Anticoagulant rodenticides

Physical disorders, obstruction, or irritation of the respiratory tract:

• Foreign object or matter in the throat, such as hair or litter dust

• Aspiration of food or liquid into the lungs

• Nasopharyngeal polyps

• Cysts, abscesses or granulomas

• Cancer, e.g. hemangiosarcoma, primary lung tumors

• Traumatic injury

• Pulmonary thrombosis

• Pulmonary embolism

• Fluid or air accumulation in the chest cavity 

Disorders of the chest cavity may be the result of traumatic injury or heart disease. Fluid or air between the lungs and the chest wall restricts breathing and may cause coughing.

Heart disease and congestive heart failure may cause coughing, though it is a less common symptom of heart failure in cats compared to dogs.

Risk Factors

All mammals cough sometimes and a minor cough that resolves quickly and does not recur frequently is not a cause for concern. More frequent or severe coughing warrants veterinary attention.

Coughing along with symptoms of respiratory distress such as difficulty breathing, cyanosis (blue gums), collapse, or coughing blood (hemoptysis) indicates a serious condition and warrant emergency veterinary care.

Testing and Diagnosis

A veterinarian diagnoses the cause of coughing using:

• Physical examination

• Blood analysis

• Diagnostic imaging; X-ray or ultrasound

• Laboratory culture of wash samples from respiratory tract 

Treatments vary depending on the cause and associated symptoms. Treatments may include:

Specific medication including:

• Antibiotics

• Anti-fungals

• Anti-parasitics

• Anti-inflammatories

• Chemotherapy

Symptomatic medications have limited indications for use for most conditions associated with coughing in cats, and are generally used only short-term, if at all, such as decongestants and expectorants.

Note: always consult a veterinarian before giving medications to pets, even if they are intended for use in animals.

Decontamination: removal of irritants from the living environment (e.g. in the case of allergies or asthma)

Surgery: in the cause of inhaled foreign bodies, traumatic injury, or cancer

Draining fluid from the chest cavity, in the case of disorder of the pleural cavity, may provide temporary relief. Fluid is expected to return if the underlying condition is not addressed.

Similar symptoms

Retching, gagging, vomiting, or hairballs may be mistaken for coughing. Choking may be mistaken for coughing. Choking can be differentiated by difficulty inhaling. Coughing cats can typically still breathe inward.

Asthma does not usually cause coughing in cats. Rapid, open-mouthed breathing is typical of an asthma attack. Difficulty breathing is an emergency.

Associated Symptoms

Coughing may be observed with many other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause. Commonly associated symptoms are:

Sneezing

• Eye discharge

Nasal discharge

Labored breathing

Lethargy

• Decreased appetite

Want to speak to a vet now?

Book an appointment

Time for a check-up?

Start a video chat with a licensed veterinary professional right now on Vetster!

Book an online vet

Online veterinarian and virtual pet care services available on-demand.

Available now on Apple and Play stores.

Vet on phone