Black and white cat looking at camera

Key takeaway

Cats cough for several reasons, ranging from allergies and asthma to more serious illnesses, including infections and heartworm. Treatment for coughing in cats depends on their diagnosis. If you're worried about your cat's cough, it's always best to consult a vet who can diagnose and treat any underlying illnesses.

Like humans, dogs, and other animals, cats sometimes cough. Coughing can be a reaction to something, such as dust or a foreign object, or indicate an underlying health concern. Coughing is a natural reflex that helps the respiratory tract clear out harmful particles and fluids for proper breathing.

If you notice your cat coughing, it's important to monitor their symptoms. Coughing can be something minor or it can be a sign of a severe health condition. In this article, we'll discuss the causes of coughing in cats, possible treatments, and signs to watch out for to help you understand when it's time to visit your vet.

What Causes Cats To Cough?

Ultimately, cats can cough for several reasons, ranging from dust in their environment to serious illnesses. Sometimes the cause of a cough is obvious. For example, maybe you're dusting your bedroom, and your cat is nearby. Other times, however, coughing does not have an apparent reason. Here are a few common causes of coughing in cats:

Causes of cat coughing

Asthma

Feline asthma is similar to human asthma. Allergens, such as dust and pollen, can trigger asthma attacks in cats because it causes inflammation and irritation in the lungs and airways. Other health conditions can contribute to asthma, including stress and obesity. The most obvious signs of feline asthma attack are coughing and wheezing when exposed to the following:

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Smoke
  • Perfume
  • Household cleaners
  • Essential oils

Respiratory infections

Bacterial and viral respiratory infections are another common cause of coughing in cats. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) can result in respiratory infections. Common symptoms of respiratory tract infections include discharge from the eyes and nose, coughing, sneezing, and lethargy.1

One common respiratory infection that can cause coughing in cats is feline herpes virus, which 97% of cats will be exposed to in their lifetime.1 Of course, there are many types of respiratory infections that cause inflammation, irritation, and coughing, including:

Feline Herpes Virus

Most cats are exposed to feline herpes throughout their lives, and it can cause a lifelong infection.1 Luckily, you can get your cat vaccinated against feline herpes virus to protect them, although it is not one of the core vaccines given.

Feline Calicivirus

Calicivirus is a contagious virus with upper respiratory symptoms, but the infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract and result in pneumonia, which can cause difficulty breathing.1 The recovery period for cats depends on the severity of their symptoms, and some cats with calicivirus may not recover at all.1

Calicivirus can be vaccinated against to offer your cat some protection and is usually included in the feline distemper vaccine.

Chlamydiosis

Feline chlamydiosis is spread from close contact between cats, and infections are most common in young cats housed with other felines, such as in shelters or hoarding situations.1 Many cats with chlamydiosis have upper respiratory symptoms, including coughing, but they may also develop conjunctivitis.1 Most cats recover and can live long lives after receiving treatment for chlamydiosis.

Sick cat at the vet

Fungal Infections

Fungal infections may also cause coughing in cats, specifically when they inhale fungal spores.1 Other symptoms of fungal infections include facial swelling, sneezing, and nasal discharge.1

Bordetella

Bordetella is most commonly seen in dogs, but cats can contract the illness known as "kennel cough." A bordetella infection is typical in shelters or areas with a high populations of cats.1 Symptoms range from mild to potentially fatal, and dogs can spread the bacteria to cats.1 Bordetella infection symptoms include coughing, sneezing, and difficulty breathing.1 Cats with uncomplicated infections can recover quickly, but treatment is necessary to prevent life-threatening pneumonia.1

Canine and Avian Influenza

Canine and aviation influenza can also cause coughing in cats.1 Influenza is typically spread through droplets from coughing and sneezing, and the symptoms are similar in cats and dogs.

Heartworm disease

Heartworm is another common cat disease that can cause coughing. Signs of heartworm in cats include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gagging1

Because these symptoms also resemble allergies, asthma, and other illnesses, it can be difficult for pet parents to realize that something is seriously wrong. Heartworm can be fatal to cats even if they're being treated. Heartworm infections occur when a mosquito carrying heartworm larvae from another animal bites a cat and allows that larvae to enter the cat's bloodstream.2 The larvae then develop and grow in the cat's heart and other vital organs.2

Heartworm is deadly to cats, especially the longer the cat has it without treatment.

Tumors

Tumors can also cause cat coughing and other symptoms, mainly when they're located in the chest, lungs, or trachea. For example, tumors of the larynx and trachea can result in labored breathing or coughing.3 Common respiratory tract tumor locations include:

  • Nose and sinuses
  • Larynx and trachea
  • Lungs3

Dry coughing, difficulty breathing, and an inability to exercise are all common symptoms of lung cancer in cats.4

Inhaling foreign objects

If your cat is sneezing and coughing, they may have inhaled something, such as a blade of grass, that's irritating their respiratory system.

Remember, a cough is a reflex that's used to eliminate foreign bodies from the airways and respiratory system.5 If there's something stuck in your cat's nose or throat, they may cough or sneeze as a way to remove it.

Hairballs

Hairballs are not uncommon in cats. While they swallow most of their fur in the process of grooming, some of it will remain undigested and come back up. If you notice your cat has a hacking cough, it can indicate they're trying to cough up a hairball.6

However, not every hacking cough is a sign of a hairball; if your cat is having an unproductive cough for more than a few days or if they're vomiting, it may be a sign of a gastrointestinal problem or respiratory illness.6

Allergies

Many cats suffer from allergies that can result in a dry cough.7 Pneumonitis is an allergic reaction in the lungs and airways that can cause a chronic cough that's either dry or wet.7 Additional signs of allergies in cats include weight loss, difficulty breathing, and wheezing.7 Watering eyes is also a symptom of allergies.

Cats can cough due to being allergic to pollen, dust, or other airborne molecules.7 Coughing from allergies and asthma have similar symptoms, and they can also occur together. If you believe your cat has allergies or asthma, it's important to take them to the vet to treat and prevent coughing fits.

Treatments for Coughing Cats

Treatment for coughing in cats depends on the cause. Your vet must first diagnose your cat before treatment can begin. Ultimately, your vet may be able to determine what's causing your cat's cough by reviewing a list of additional symptoms, or they may need to run tests to figure out if your cat has an underlying illness. Depending on the cause of your cat's cough, treatments may include the following:

Treatments for coughing cats

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics can help resolve respiratory infections that may be causing coughing.
  • Steroids: Steroids can help treat asthma in cats by reducing inflammation in the airways.
  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines may be used to prevent coughing due to allergies.
  • NSAIDs: NSAIDs are pain relievers that can be used to reduce discomfort in cats after surgery or pain caused by illnesses.
  • Surgery: If a cat has fluid in their lungs from an infection that's causing them to cough, a vet may suggest removing the fluid with a needle and syringe. Additionally, surgery may be required for cats that have inhaled objects.
  • Environmental changes: Depending on the reason for your cat's coughing, you may need to make some changes to their environment. For example, a cat coughing due to allergies may need an air purifier to help remove allergens from the air.

When to See the Vet for Your Cat’s Cough

Knowing your cat's symptoms, including the type of cough they have, can help you determine when to take your cat to the vet. Your vet will first need to diagnose the cause of your cat's coughing with a medical examination and diagnostic tests. Be prepared to discuss your cat's cough with your vet and let them know if it's a productive (wet) or unproductive (dry) cough, which can indicate different types of illnesses.

Additionally, you should always take your cat to the vet if they're experiencing other symptoms along with their coughing. For example, if your cat is coughing and sneezing, it can indicate an upper respiratory infection that should be treated as soon as possible. However, if they are experiencing respiratory symptoms and cat diarrhea, it may signify a more serious illness, such as heartworm disease.

When to see the vet for your cat’s cough

Take your cat to the vet immediately if they are having difficulty breathing or wheezing, as it can be a sign that something is preventing them from being able to breathe properly. You know your cat best, so taking them to the vet for coughing can help you treat possible infections and health problems early on.

Coughing Cat: Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if my cat is coughing?

If you notice your cat coughing, monitor their symptoms. Consult your vet if you notice any signs of difficulty breathing or lethargy. If your cat's cough doesn't get better within a few days or their cough worsens, schedule an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.

Why does nothing come out when my cat is coughing?

If your cat is coughing and nothing is coming out, it can indicate illness, allergies, or asthma. Pay attention to the other symptoms your cat has, including how often they're coughing and the type of cough they have. Speak to your vet if you feel like your cat is getting worse.

Should I be worried if my cat is coughing?

Coughing in cats is typically a sign of inflammation in their respiratory tract, which can be caused by allergies, asthma, infections, and serious illnesses. If your cat continues to cough over the course of a few days, schedule an appointment with your vet and continue to monitor their symptoms.

Final Notes

Cats cough for several reasons, including furballs, allergies, asthma, and serious infections and illnesses. To know why your cat is coughing, you must talk to an experienced vet who can diagnose and treat them properly. As a pet parent, you should also know the signs and symptoms of common illnesses that can result in a cough. If your cat is coughing, monitor their symptoms to ensure they're not having difficulty breathing.

A Dutch-affiliated vet can help you determine the cause of your cat's coughing and treat non-emergency coughs accordingly. Dutch's telemedicine for pets can help your pet get the treatment they need from the comfort of their own homes. A licensed vet can develop a treatment plan for your cat to ensure they live a happy, healthy, cough-free life.

References

  1. “Respiratory Infections.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 30 Sept. 2020, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/respiratory-infections.

  2. “Heartworm in Cats.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 17 Feb. 2021, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/heartworm-cats.

  3. Kuehn, Ned F. “Cancers and Tumors of the Lung and Airway in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-cats/cancers-and-tumors-of-the-lung-and-airway-in-cats.

  4. Lung Cancer in Dogs and Cats - Cvm.ncsu.edu. https://cvm.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/RAD-ONC-Lung-cancer-in-dogs-and-cats.pdf.

  5. “Approach to the Coughing Cat.” MSPCA, 20 Oct. 2017, https://www.mspca.org/angell_services/approach-coughing-cat/.

  6. “The Danger of Hairballs.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 May 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/danger-hairballs.

  7. Kuehn, Ned F. “Allergic Pneumonitis in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-cats/allergic-pneumonitis-in-cats.