Coughing is a reflex action and serves as a protective measure designed to rid the airways and lungs of particles (such as dust), inhaled food or water, mucus, irritants, and microbes. It is a symptom of an underlying disorder and not a primary disease in itself. Coughing is seen less often in cats than it is in dogs.
The purpose of coughing is to prevent noxious materials entering the respiratory system (think about how we cough when we inhale smoke or chemicals), it also helps to get rid of substances from the lungs and respiratory tract which may include mucus, inhaled food or water.
Coughing may be acute (sudden onset), which lasts for one to two weeks, or chronic coughing, which lasts longer than two weeks. It may be dry and hacking, wet, producing mucus or honking (similar to the sound a goose makes). The type and frequency of a cough can give your veterinarian a clue as to what the cause may be.
There are a number of causes of coughing in cats ranging from mild to severe. Some of which include:
Heartworm - Worm infection of the pulmonary arteries, heart and lungs
Lungworm - Worm infection of the lungs
Roundworm migration - Migration of roundworms from the bloodstream to the lungs
Paralysis ticks - Ixodes holocyclus are ticks found predominantly along the east coast of Australia which injects a neurotoxin into the cat as it feeds. One of the early signs of tick poisoning is coughing
Cat flu - Caused by a number of viruses including feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, and feline reovirus
Fungal infection - Blastomycosis
Feline Bordetella - Bacterial cough caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica, it is the same bacteria which causes kennel cough in dogs
Pneumonia - Infection or inflammation of the lungs which may be bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic or due to aspiration
Pneumonic plague - A bacterial infection caused Yersinia pestis
Asthma - Tightening of the airways, there are potential triggers for asthma such as cigarette smoke, perfume, household fires, sprays, dust etc.
- Chylothorax - Accumulation of lymphatic fluid building up in the pleural cavity (the space between the lungs and the chest wall)
- Pulmonary edema - Fluid in the lungs
Hairballs - Accumulation of hair in the stomach and intestine
Heart disease - Not one disease but a number of disorders relating to the heart
Lung tumours - Benign or cancerous tumours of the lungs. May have originated in the lungs or spread (metastasized) from another location
Congestive heart failure - A life-threatening disorder which occurs when the heart doesn't pump blood as efficiently as it should. This causes fluid to back up in the lungs and abdomen, while other organs don't receive enough blood in order to function properly.
Nasopharyngeal polyps - Benign growths arising from the mucous membranes of the nose
Pulmonary embolism - A blood clot in the lungs
Inhalation of foreign body, chemical, or irritants - Such as smoke, bleach, pollen and dust
The most common causes of coughing in cats are asthma, pneumonia, heartworm and lungworm.
Other symptoms accompanying coughing
As all coughs have an underlying cause, it is common for other symptoms to be present also. These may include:
Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
Increased respiration rate
Reluctance to exercise
A coughing cat is not normal and it is important he see a veterinarian to determine why he is coughing, this is especially important if your cat is experiencing difficulty breathing which may present as deep or rapid breathing, noisy breathing, shallow breathing and panting. The gums may be pale or blue-tinged, which is a sign of poor oxygenation. All of these symptoms are a medical emergency.
It is easy to confuse sneezing or the gagging and retching associated with hairballs with coughing. If possible, try to get a video recording of your cat coughing to show to your veterinarian.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat including listening to the heart and lungs. He will obtain a medical history from you and ask how long symptoms have been present if they occur after an event (such as exercise) as well as any other symptoms you have noticed. The type of cough and other presenting symptoms (if any) may be indicative of the cause. Three such examples below:
- A cough which is accompanied by sneezing and nasal discharge may suggest cat flu.
- Coughing accompanied by wheezing may suggest asthma.
Some tests your veterinarian may wish to perform include:
- Complete blood count, biochemical profile, and urinalysis. These baseline tests can evaluate for signs of infection or inflammation as well as rule out a systemic cause.
- Chest x-ray which may determine the presence of asthma, pleural effusion (a collection of fluid inside the chest cavity around the lung) and heartworm disease.
- Heartworm antibody and antigen tests.
- Fecal analysis and/or flotation which may detect the presence of pulmonary parasites. Repeat fecal examinations (at least three) may be required due to intermittent shedding of lung parasites.
- Tracheal endoscopy to evaluate the trachea. Biopsies and phlegm may be removed for testing.
- Thoracic fluid analysis where pleural effusion is present.
- Echocardiogram - An ultrasound to evaluate the size and shape of the heart and vessels as well as to look for heartworms in antigen positive cats.
It is important to identify the cause of the coughing and treatment depends on the underlying cause but may include:
Heartworm: In the event of heartworm, supportive care such as bronchodilators to assist with breathing. In severe cases, your veterinarian may decide to give medications to kill the heartworm, this comes with risks though and should only be used as a last resort.
Heart disease: Treatment depends on the type of heart disease your cat has, but may include medications to improve the function of the heart, diuretics to remove fluid, which can accumulate in cats with congestive heart failure, ACE inhibitors to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure, surgical repair, low salt diet, keeping your cat in a stress free environment.
Cat flu: Supportive care such as fluids to treat dehydration and nutritional support. Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infections.
Lungworm and roundworm: These worms are easily treated with worming medications.
Asthma: Steroids to reduce inflammation (either oral or inhalant form) and bronchodilators to open up the airways.
Chylothorax: Thoracentesis to remove fluid from the pleural cavity, surgery may be necessary to treat the unresponsive cases.
Hairballs: Bulking up the diet with bran, pumpkin or lubricants can help your cat pass a hairball more easily. There are also special "hairball diets" available from your veterinarian.
Nasopharyngeal polyps: Surgical removal of the polyps.
Feline bordetella: Antibiotics are prescribed to treat bordetella. There is also a vaccine available now.
Ticks: Removal of the ticks, if paralysis has occurred aggressive treatment will be necessary. Oxygen to assist with breathing, antiserum in counteracting the poison, your cat will have to spend several days at the veterinarian recovering. This is a life-threatening condition.
Pulmonary embolism: Blood thinning medications as well as drugs to break down the embolism. Supportive care such as oxygen therapy will also be necessary.
Congestive heart failure: Managing the medical cause as well as relieving symptoms such as oxygen therapy, thoracentesis, diuretics to assist with fluid removal via the urine, vasodilators to open up the vessels.
Pneumonia: Antibiotics to treat bacterial infection and supportive care including oxygen therapy, fluids to treat dehydration and cage rest.