Cats cough just like we do, and for many of the same reasons. Coughing is a reflex; when something irritates the back of the throat, breathing passages or lungs, the body responds, expelling whatever is causing the irritation. It's an important mechanism for protecting the lungs and air passages from foreign objects and expelling infectious matter from the body. Just like us, cats have different kinds of coughs: a dry, hacking cough; a moist-sounding cough; a single, gagging cough; a wheezing cough; and that half-cough, half clearing the throat thing.
The type of cough can tell you a lot about what's causing it. It's also important to note whether the cough is productive (accompanied by fluid or other matter) or non-productive. A cough can just be a simple throat irritation, but it can also be a symptom of a much bigger problem. If it gets to the point where you need to talk to your vet about your cat's cough, being able to describe how it sounds and whether it's productive can help him or her figure out what's causing it.
Hairballs are a common reason for coughs, and typically, those are easily treated with an over-the-counter hairball medication. You should be able to tell pretty easily if your cat's cough is caused by a hairball, because he will eventually expel a tubelike "ball" of hair. A persistent cough could be a sign of an upper respiratory infection (yes, cats get them, too), especially if also accompanied by sneezing, a runny nose, watery eyes or a fever. A visit to the veterinarian may be in order. Persistent coughs due to feline colds or flu can sometimes be helped with medication, but it's important not to give your cat anything without consulting your veterinarian first.
Hairballs and upper respiratory infections are minor compared to what could actually be going on if your cat has a chronic cough. In the next section, we'll look at some of the other potential causes of coughs in cats.
Treating Coughs in Cats
There are lots of reasons why your cat has a persistent cough, depending on when he coughs and the type of cough. We'll look at just a few of the potential causes here, but ultimately your veterinarian is the person to make a definitive diagnosis.
If your cat coughs only when exercising, it may be acute bronchitis, a lung inflammation. Cats with chronic bronchitis are more likely to cough up mucus. Cats may also develop feline asthma, a chronic lung inflammation that can make breathing difficult. One symptom is a persistent cough, but it's usually accompanied by other symptoms such as wheezing, bluish gums, open-mouthed breathing and gasping for breath.
More serious diseases than asthma can start out with a simple cough. Congestive heart failure, for example, may begin with a mild, moist cough at night that becomes productive over time. Coughs may also be due to pneumonia, a fungal infection, lymphoma, heartworms and a host of other illnesses -- many of which can be successfully treated if caught early. That's why any cough that lasts for more than a day or two, or is accompanied by other symptoms, should be checked out by the vet just to be on the safe side.
If your cat is coughing and also pawing at his mouth or shaking his head, there may be something stuck in his throat or mouth. Open your cat's mouth -- taking care that you avoid being bitten -- and look inside. If you find a foreign body and can remove it easily, do so. Keep a close eye on your cat for the next few days to make sure that he doesn't develop an infection. If the object is stuck in the roof of the mouth, between the teeth or you can't locate it at all, see your vet right away.
A collar can sometimes cause a cat to cough, especially if it's too tight. A tight collar may cause a honking cough. If your cat wears a collar, check the size. You should be able to slip the tip of your finger between the collar and the cat's neck easily. Since cats like to squeeze into tight places, collars can pose a choking hazard. Many experts recommend you only use cat collars with elastic or breakaway features so that if the cat snags the collar on something, it'll come off easily.
- ASPCA. "Cat Care: Asthma." ASPCA. 2011. (April 19, 2011)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/cat-care-asthma.aspx
- ASPCA. "Cat Care: Upper Respiratory Infections." ASPCA. 2011. (April 19, 2011)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/cat-care-upper-respiratory-infections.aspx
- Eldredge, Debra M., et al. "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook." Howell Book House. Dec. 10, 2007.
- Griffin, Morgan R. "Causes of Coughing in Cats." WebMD. 2011. (April 19, 2011)http://pets.webmd.com/cats/coughing-cats-causes-feline-coughing
- Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster and Smith. "Coughing in Dogs and Cats: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment." Pet Education. 2011. (April 20, 2011)http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1+2129&aid=3537
- Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith. "Feline Asthma: A Case of Coughing in Cats." Pet Education. 2011. (April 20, 2011)http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1+2129&aid=209