Cat Asthma vs. Hairballs

Cuteness may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.

When your cat appears to cough, it's usually because they are trying to relieve themselves of a hairball. The first time I had ever experienced this was when, as a child, I witnessed our cat, Mitz, seemingly choke and cough. The sound my cat made was unnerving for a child and to this day I'll never forget the "Help me, help me" sound my cat emitted, after which he successfully brought up a hairball. However, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between harmless hairballs (which are usually harmless) and asthma--a serious and potentially fatal condition.

Origin of a Hairball

A hairball occurs as a result of your cat grooming and swallowing its hair. This is a normal occurrence as the cat's digestive system cannot handle hair digestion which simply passes through the intestinal tract and out in the feces. When hair remains in the cat's stomach, a hairball will form and the cat will attempt to vomit it up in a manner that may resemble coughing. But what if your cat appears to be coughing when it doesn't produce a hairballs? It's quite possible that your cat may have asthma--which is accompanied by a host of other symptoms and is triggered by a number of things in the environment. Make sure to look for these symptoms and possible triggers if you think that your cat's coughing may be asthma related.

The Asthmatic Cat

Assuming that your cat has a hairball when, in fact, your cat has asthma can be fatal if it progresses and is left untreated. Fortunately, like with humans, cats can also be treated to manage this disease!

The Suffering 1%

An estimated 1% of cats suffer from asthma. Any breed can have asthma but Siamese and Burmese cats show the greatest incidence, so you'd be well-advised to pay close attention if your cat is one of these breeds. Asthma can first occur in young to middle age cats, usually around the ages of two and eight. Asthmas triggers are allergens in the environment such as dust, smoke, fumes, pollens, molds, fragrances and aerosols. Asthma triggers can also originate from heat or cold or stress and exertion.

Feline Asthma

This disorder called Feline Asthma originates in the lower airways, called bronchi and bronchioles. Increased production of mucous, airway spasms and difficulty breathing is caused by inflammation which is considered an immune mediated condition (meaning the trigger is an allergic or overactive response of the cat's immune system.


The symptoms of feline asthma can affect every cat differently. The most common symptoms are wheezing and a hairball-like "cough" which is why feline asthma can be easily mistaken for a hairballs. Keep in mind that hairballs can cause retching, gagging and vomiting but not true coughing and wheezing, as a hairball is stomach, not lung, related.

Other systems of this disease may include decreased activity, windedness and an increased breathing rate as well as open-mouthed breathing. Feline asthma in its worst state can cause death by asphyxiation simply because the animal cannot breathe.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Persistent coughing, wheezing or respiratory difficulties will usually warrant testing to determine the problem, beginning with a thorough physical examination and progressing to chest x-rays to rule out other causes of respiratory problems caused by heart enlargement, tumors, pneumonia and fluid around the lungs. A blood test is next where the red and white blood cells aid in determining whether a patient is responding to infection or inflammation.

A heartworm and fecal test for intestinal parasites should also be added to this barrage of tests because they also can mimic the symptoms of feline asthma. The diagnosis of feline asthma is made by ruling out all of the above which could cause respiratory or coughing problems, but there is no one test that determines 100% that your cat has feline asthma or not.


Two main types of drugs are used in treating feline asthma. Corticosteroids are anti inflammatory such as prednisone or Flovent. These drugs are used to reduce inflammation in the airways. Side effects are numerous and include weight gain, increased thirst and appetite, diabetes, low infection resistance and sometimes even behavioral changes.

Bronchodilators are drugs that open up the airways. The forms used can be both oral or inhaled with minimal side effects. Special inhalant masks are generally used to administer these medications.

Other drugs like antihistamines are also used by some veterinarians and holistic methods could also be considered as an alternative to medical therapies. Oxygen therapy may be used in emergency situations.

Cats and Diet

You may think that diet doesn't matter but it does. Your cat will be tested for food allergens as being the cause for its feline asthma. Perhaps some ingredient in your cat's diet is the cause? If the food is the culprit then your vet may prescribe some special food for your cat to eat for about 12 weeks. If the symptoms disappear, then her old food will slowly be introduced back into kitty's diet to see if any of that food causes any asthma issues.

Grain-Free Food

Some people go ahead and remove any grain based food from their cat's diet to aid their cat in its ability to breathe. Removing grain-based dry foods and replacing them with grain-free canned food sometimes aided in reducing the cat's medication dosages or them needing no medication at all! In any case, it's best to talk this decision over with your vet first, especially if your cat's diet has consisted of dry food all its life.

By Tom Matteo

Feline Nutrition: Another Furball? It Might Be Feline Asthma
Catster: When It Isn't a Hairball: How I Learned My Cat Had Asthma
The Nest: The Best Diet For Cats With Asthma

About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.