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September 2, 2021 – Ask most cat owners about coughing in cats and they’ll be quick to talk about the gagging, coughing and retching they note when a cat has a hairball! Some veterinarians include gagging up a hairball in the coughing category but, more specifically speaking, coughing occurs when there is an irritation somewhere in or near the respiratory tract.

In general, diseases that cause coughing are more common in dogs than in cats, and the underlying causes for coughing in cats are very different than those noted in dogs.

For cat owners, or owners with both cats and dogs, it’s important to understand when a feline cough signals a problem that may need further attention.

Common Causes of Coughing

The most common causes of coughing in cats are:

  • Asthma (some experts feel this is the most common cause of chronic coughing in cats)
  • Heartworm disease
  • Infection (bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic)
  • Cancer
  • Allergies

If coughing is becoming a problem, it’s important to note and share with your veterinarian if:

  • The cough is dry (non-productive) or moist (productive)
  • Wheezing is present
  • The cough is frequent (and regular) or sporadic and infrequent
  • There are obvious triggers, such as exposure to smoke, seasonal changes or recent exposure to other animals
  • Sneezing is present
  • There are any other concurrent clinical signs such as weight loss, poor appetite, vomiting or diarrhea are present

Diagnosis and Treatment

Chest radiographs (X-rays) are one of the most important and simplest diagnostic tests available to look for underlying causes of coughing. The pattern of lung changes can provide important clues as to the underlying cause of the cough and sometimes provide the diagnosis.

Routine bloodwork can help provide additional information about the underlying cause in some cases. Other tests include testing for heartworm disease, and a fecal examination if lung parasites are suspected. Occasionally, more extensive testing, such as bronchoscopy, is needed to arrive at a final diagnosis.

Treatment is dictated by the underlying cause and in some cases can be lifelong, such as with asthma and allergies. Conversely, heartworm disease or lung parasites can be cured with medication. Treatment for more serious illnesses, such as lung cancer, should be discussed with your family veterinarian to determine best possible outcomes.

Morris Animal Foundation has been funding studies on cat health for almost 75 years! Learn more about our work to improve the lives of cats everywhere, and find out what you can do to help give cats a brighter and healthier tomorrow