What Does it Mean When Your Cat Coughs?

Pet Care


April 25, 2020

When most people think about the sounds that cats make, they often think about the variety of meows that cats make. There are loud meows that sound almost like howls that they often make when they are in heat. There are also quick, chirpy meows that they make when they might be hunting a bird or a bug.

Other people might think about the purrs that cats make when they are happy, while some people might think about the growling and yowling that cats make when they fight. When you think about it, cats make a variety of different noises. With that being said, almost nobody expects to hear a cat coughing in their lifetime.

Cats, like most animals that have a complex respiratory system, can cough if there is something irritating that system. It is a sound that most people don’t hear, so it can be incredibly concerning to hear a cat cough for the first time and you might want to rush your cat down to emergency care as soon as you can.

However, the best thing that you can do for your cat if this happens is to assess and understand the situation. Sometimes cats cough for simple reasons, and other times cats cough due to an urgent problem. Understanding why your cat is coughing will help you understand the situation as well, helping you to take the best course of action.

Is it an Urgent Problem?

More often than not, coughs are not an urgent problem. In most cases, cats cough because something irritated their lungs, and while this might not be pleasant for the cat, it often isn’t a cause for concern. Of course, there are times when coughing is a cause for concern.

If the cough is a productive (meaning that it produces phlegm or sputum) cough, lasts for several days, or if the cat appears sick in other ways, then you will want to call the vet, but even then, this is not urgent. If there are signs that your cat is not getting adequate airflow in because it is coughing so much, then it would be considered an urgent situation and you would need to find an emergency pet clinic near you.

What Does it Mean?

At its most basic level, a cat’s cough means the same thing as a human’s cough does. It means that something, often an inflammatory response, is affecting the lower respiratory tract, causing them to expel air to try and “fix” the issue at hand. Usually, the cause of the inflammation is what vets will look for in trying to treat a cat’s cough.

There are times when the cause of the cough is from an issue with the upper respiratory tract. Usually, this is caused by either inflammation or irritation to the area, which causes the body to secrete more phlegm and sputum, which irritates the lungs further, leading to coughing. There are also rare situations, such as a foreign material in the airway, that can cause a cat to cough that don’t involve specifically the upper or lower respiratory tract being inflamed.

In the end, a cough means that something, whether it is gas, a virus, a tumor, or just allergies, has irritated and/or inflamed something in the respiratory system, causing the cat’s lungs to try and cough away the problem, regardless of whether that is productive or not. This is because the cough is a reflex specifically designed to rid the entire respiratory tract of mucus, irritants, and microbes alike.

What Causes Cat Coughing?

Just like with humans, there are countless reasons why your cat might be coughing. The list ranges from allergies to tumors and everything in between. Before you try and figure out what is causing your cat to cough, make sure that your cat is actually coughing. Because coughing in cats is somewhat rare, many people confuse the sound of a hairball with the sound of a cough. These are two completely different bodily functions. This can be tough, as many cats will end up vomiting after coughing because of the force it takes for a cat to cough. Your vet will help work this out with you if and when you call them.

As for the causes of cats coughing, there are plenty of them. Some of the most common causes include the following: feline asthma, irritation, inflammation, tumors, and polyps.

Feline asthma functions much the same as asthma in people. It is chronic and progressive, meaning that if your cat has it, it will be stuck with this condition. Thankfully, it can be easily controlled through medication.

However, if you know that your cat has asthma, there’s a good chance that you will hear a lot of coughing and potentially even wheezing if your cat has a more severe form of asthma. If your cat has this, the best way to reduce coughing is to know what your cat’s triggers are for coughing fits and to try and rid those triggers from your home as best as you can.

Irritation is about as straightforward as it sounds. This is arguably the most common cause of a cough in cats. Irritation means that something has irritated a part of the respiratory system. It could be a virus or bacteria trying to make itself at home, or it could be excess mucus from allergies irritating the trachea. It could be an inhaled gas in the air, or it could be that your cat is choking on something. Irritation often goes hand in hand with inflammation, as inflammation is actually an irritant.

With that being said, it could be argued that inflammation is the second most common cause of coughing in cats. Inflammation can also happen for a number of reasons, but it is most often seen with infections of all different types. It could be the flu, bacteria, fungus, or even parasites causing the inflammation. Allergies can also cause inflammation, which can lead to excess mucus, which only leads straight back to irritation. Strangely enough, irritation leads to inflammation, which leads right back to irritating the lungs again.

Tumors are rare, but it is important to know that they can be a possibility. The tumors can be benign or they could be malignant. They can occur in the upper tract (mouth and trachea), or they can occur in the lower tract (the lungs). The size and position of the tumor will determine just how bad the cough is, or if there even is a cough in the first place.

Lastly, another somewhat rare cause is polyps. More specifically, nasopharyngeal polyps will grow at the back of the throat, blocking off the nose. These benign growths will then cause your cat to (reluctantly) breathe through their mouths, or more often, cough to try and remove the irritant in their throat.

What Can You Do?

Of course, you should leave most of the issue in the hands of the vet. However, if you have a cat that does not have a worrisome cough and you have a few days to wait for the vet appointment, then you might want to consider the idea of using homemade remedies to try and ease your cat’s experience. After all, coughing is strenuous on cats, and this can be seen by the fact that many cats end up vomiting simply because of the force it takes for them to cough in the first place.

First, you should do a thorough dusting of your house, or at least the areas where your cat frequents. This reduces the amount of potential irritants in the air, which can be helpful if your cat is coughing from asthma or allergies. You can also try and get rid of any strong odors as well. Some cats, because of their sensitive noses, cannot handle very strong smells and will begin to cough. You should also try to minimize airborne irritants. These include incense, smoke, and detergents.

When Should You Visit the Vet?

It is also important to know when a cough can wait, and when it cannot. The most urgent situation would be when your cat is beginning to lose oxygen from coughing so much. This can be seen if your cat is turning pale or even blue in the tongue and gums.

In this case, you must take the cat to a vet immediately, as this is a veterinary emergency. A slightly less urgent situation is when there is wheezing alongside the coughing. This is another sign that your cat isn’t getting the oxygen it needs. Another problem that is worrisome is when your cat is beginning to lose weight and/or has a reduced appetite, as this indicates something is very wrong.

Other problems that are worrisome, but not emergent, include persistent and recurring coughs, coughing in addition to sneezing, wet/productive coughing, and coughing without producing a hairball.