Why is My Cat Coughing?

There are a lot of sounds we all associate with cats—a calming purr, a happy meow, even an angry hiss every now and then (or every day, depending on your cat's personality). There's another sound, however, that many cat owners are familiar with, but that they never like to hear: a cough. Sometimes it's a dry, hacking cough, sometimes it's accompanied by a wet wheeze, but it's never a sound you're psyched to hear as a cat owner.

So why is your cat coughing? Here's what you need to know about this not-so-pleasant pet sound.

Is it normal for cats to cough?

For starters, is a cat cough even anything to be concerned about? Cats' coughing fits tend to be dramatic, sure, but is it normal for cats to cough? It's easy to chalk all cat coughing up to hairballs, call the whole thing a normal (if gross) part of being a cat and call it a day.

But there's also a not-so-simple answer to the "is it normal for cats to cough?" question. In a broad sense, sure, it's normal, in that a lot of cats end up coughing during their lives. But it's also "normal" for humans to sometimes cough—or run slight fevers or throw up or any number of things our bodies do to cope with something that shouldn't be happening.

A Sleeping cat face closeup
credit: SirWat/iStock/GettyImages

Just like in humans, coughing in cats is a clue that something else is wrong, but the root cause and the severity of the underlying issue can vary greatly. Again, think about human coughs. Sometimes humans cough because they swallowed a little wrong and their throat is itchy. Other times, human coughing is a symptom of pneumonia. One of those things is NBD. The other can be a VBD.

Long story short: If your cat is coughing, you should probably keep reading—and keep an eye on your cat.

Why do cats cough?

In a piece for the Pet Health Network, Dr. Mike Paul, DVM, digs into the coughing cat issue. As Dr. Paul explains, coughing is a "protective reflex"—meaning it's something the body (in this case, of course, a cat body) does to expel unwanted things from the throat, lungs, and rest of the respiratory tract. As Dr. Paul notes, the things a cough can help get rid of include foreign particles, mucus, irritants and microbes.

"[Coughing] is not a disease in itself but it is a sign of an underlying problem," he writes. "Coughing in cats is induced primarily by irritation or inflammation in the bronchi or trachea and can be associated with a variety of conditions ranging from mild to severe."

Possible causes of coughing in cats:

So your cat is coughing and you've accepted that coughing is not just a thing cats do for fun. Now what? Now it's time to get into what the underlying problem causing the coughing fit could be. Here are some of the possible causes of coughing in cats:

  • Allergies
  • Hairballs
  • Bronchial disease (both infectious and non infectious)
  • Cardiac disease
  • Cancer
  • Asthma
  • Fungal lung infection
  • Heartworm
  • Parasitic diseases
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Respiratory tract tumor
  • Foreign objects stuck in the respiratory tract

As you can see, the causes of cat coughing range from "oh, okay" to "OMG so it's a good idea to take your cat to the vet if they're coughing is persistent.

What if my cat is also wheezing?

If your cat's coughing fits also include a sound that you would describe as "wheezing," then this section is for you. Here's the good news: Wheezing is another symptom that can help you diagnose the root cause of the coughing. The bad news: Some of the conditions that include wheezing can be very serious.

According to Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, the most common causes of wheezing are generally somewhat mild. Usually, it's the result of allergies or asthma. Wheezing can also be a sign that the cat has developed polyps in their sinuses or throat or that a foreign object is trapped in their respiratory tract (read: they tried to swallow something they should not have tried to swallow and it got stuck). That's a fairly normal thing for a cat to do, but if this happens, you should definitely take your cat to the vet.

That's pretty much it for the good news. Here's the bad.

"Heart worms and parasites, such as lungworms, can cause wheezing," Dr. Gibbons explained in an interview with Catster. "Pneumonia can be a cause of coughing. Depending on the location of the growth, cancer can also cause wheezing. Heart failure uncommonly causes coughing or wheezing in cats (it's more common in dogs), but it can happen."

Yikes. Heart worms? Parasites? Pneumonia? CANCER? HEART FAILURE? Are you calling your vet right now? I don't blame you. I'll wait.

When should I take my cat to the vet?

Cat on vet table in main focus
credit: Phoenixns/iStock/GettyImages

If your cat has been coughing for several days or the cough is especially severe, your best bet is to plan a trip to the vet. You can also look for other symptoms that can help you determine what the underlying cause of the cough is. If your cat is also sneezing, for example, he or she might be suffering from a viral infection. If your cat's cough is accompanied by a sudden change in weight, appetite, or energy level, the cause might be parasitic disease or cancer.

When you do go to the vet, make sure that you're prepared with the information that will help them diagnose your cat. WebMD suggests going into the appointment with the following information at the ready:

  • Does the cough sound wet or dry?
  • What time of day is the cough the worst?
  • Are there any specific triggers for the cough, like exercise?

When in doubt, it's always a good idea to check with your vet—better safe than sorry.