Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) in Cats

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Last updated on
2 min read

Key takeaways

Dysphagia in cats refers to difficulty swallowing.

  • Cats with dysphagia may tilt their heads while eating, attempt to swallow repeatedly, or chew food excessively
  • Any number of conditions affecting a cat’s mouth, pharynx, or esophagus lead to dysphagia, including muscular or neurological conditions, injuries, inflammation, and cancer
  • Dysphagia varies in severity, ranging from difficulty swallowing to a complete inability to swallow
  • Dysphagia always warrants medical intervention, but severe cases are medical emergencies
  • Diagnostics include a physical examination, bloodwork, urinalysis, and diagnostic imaging
  • Treatment varies depending on the underlying condition
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A closer look: Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) in Cats

Dysphagia is uncommon in cats.

Cats cannot go more than 2-3 days without food, or they risk developing hepatic lipidosis, a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. If a cat is unable to swallow at all, they require emergency medical attention.

If dysphagia is accompanied by signs of obvious distress, such as difficulty breathing, panicked behavior, or collapse, it is also considered an emergency.

Some conditions that can cause dysphagia, such as dental disease, are serious. Even when cats can still swallow, dysphagia still warrants prompt intervention.

Possible causes

Many conditions can lead to dysphagia, especially those affecting a cat’s mouth, jaw, upper throat (pharynx), and esophagus. These range from neural disorders which interrupt a cat’s brain signals, conditions affecting the muscles a cat uses to chew or swallow, foreign objects caught in their mouth or digestive tract and conditions that make swallowing uncomfortable, such as an injury.

Risk factors

Some cats with dysphagia are still able to swallow, albeit with difficulty. Others are unable to swallow at all. Cats showing signs of visible distress require emergency medical attention.

Signs may include

  • Outstretched neck
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Panicked behavior
  • Collapse

Dysphagia is usually caused by chronic conditions that develop over time, although it may manifest acutely in cases of injuries, inflammation, and foreign bodies.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostics begin with a physical examination. Other testing may be recommended, including:

  • Bloodwork
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Urinalysis
  • Endoscopy

Treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may include medication or surgery. Cats that cannot eat may require nutritional support through a feeding tube, to prevent hepatic lipidosis.

Similar symptoms

Associated symptoms


Dr. Bari Spielman - Writing for PetPlace
Patricia Walters, VMD, DACVIM, DACVECC - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Jan F. Hawkins, DVM, DACVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Genell McCormick, DVM - Writing for PetMD

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