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A tuxedo cat sits crouched on top of a cat tree, looking uncomfortable.

When Tara started coughing last year, I was terrified. I remembered previous cats who had coughed, and those endings hadn’t been happy. Photo by JaneA Kelley

I hear a lot of people mention that their cat “coughed up a hairball.” But a cat ejecting a hairball through his mouth is not coughing; he’s vomiting.

It’s not uncommon for cats to vomit, but a coughing cat is a very unusual thing indeed. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, a coughing cat is likely experiencing irritation or inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the trachea (wind pipe), and the bronchi and bronchioles (air tubes in the lungs). A cat might also cough to expel mucus or other secretions.

The most common reason cats cough is respiratory infections. If a cat gets feline viral rhinotracheitis or bordetella (yes, that’s the same bordetella dogs get), those diseases can cause irritation that leads to coughing.

If a cat coughs every once in a while, it’s probably not a huge issue.They occasionally get dust particles or irritants up their noses just like we do, and that can trigger a cough. But if the cough recurs or gets worse,or if your cat is having trouble breathing, you need to get your purry friend to the vet.

My coughing cat story

Last year, my lovely Tara (that’s her at the top of the page) started having coughing fits. I was terrified, because all I could think of was Dahlia and Thomas: they had both coughed, but it wasn’t from sniffing dust bunnies left by my crappy house cleaning. Both of them were much sicker than any of their regular vets thought.

So I called my vet right away and got an appointment. My vet examined Tara up and down, and while everything looked generally great, with her stethoscope she could hear that she had more respiratory noise than usual.

“I hope this is just a big nothingburger,” I told my vet. “But I’ve had two cats that coughed, and 100 percent of them had cancer, so I’m not taking this lightly.”

Because of Tara’s respiratory noise, and because of my concerns, my vet took some X-rays. There were signs of inflammation in her respiratory passages, but there were no obvious signs of cancer or asthma. She reminded me that Tara had an episode of coughing the previous year around the same time of year, and suggested that allergies might have something to do with it.

We agreed to a conservative approach to start: a course of antibiotics in case there was a bacterial infection, and careful observation. If the coughing hadn’t subsided significantly in a week, I was to call back and make a follow-up appointment. She told me about a human allergy medicine I can use with Tara if she starts having more allergy symptoms.

A tuxedo cat at the vet's office, looking up at her human with a pleading expression.

Tare’s never jazzed about going to the vet, but she tolerates it and doesn’t try to run away when I put her in her carrier. Photo by JaneA Kelley

As soon as I got home, I checked the air quality to see if there were high levels of allergens or other such things. The air quality was listed as “moderate,” but levels of ragweed pollen were pretty high. I’m not plagued with severe allergies myself, but I know people who are, and their allergies cause them a lot of suffering. I figured this finding could carry over to cats, so I wanted to make sure my little coughing cat was as comfortable as possible.

Fortunately, Tara’s symptoms resolved quickly. I haven’t even had to give her the allergy medicine I bought.

Now that I’ve told you my story, I want to go into some more details about cat coughing and its potential causes.

First, let’s start with a show-and-tell. Oh, but first: I’ve used privacy-enhanced mode to share all the videos in this post. That means YouTube can’t track you watching these videos, as long as you watch them on this page.

This is what a vomiting cat sounds like

This cat really does vomit, so if you’re emetophobic, don’t watch this video.

This is what a coughing cat sounds like

This is video I took of Tara coughing so that my vet could see and hear the behavior.

Some common reasons for cats to cough

Beyond allergies, like Tara has, and beyond dust and other irritants like secondhand smoke or wildfire smoke. there are other reasons you might find yourself with a coughing cat. Here are a few of them, courtesy of PetMD.

  • Asthma: Cat asthma is very much like human asthma. The cat’s airways narrow and mucus builds up in response to environmental triggers. This can lead to coughing and wheezing.
  • Pleural effusion: This is when fluid builds up between the lungs and the chest wall, causing the lungs to be squeezed. in humans, pleural effusion is common in certain types of heart failure. When I brought Dahlia to the emergency vet when she was struggling to breathe, she had a pleural effusion. Hers was a complication of lymphoma rather than heart failure.
  • Cancer: Coughing may be one of the first things you notice if your cat has a cancer that affects the respiratory tract. It turned out that Thomas’s coughing was caused by cancer. The tumor appeared in his lung first, then metastasized (spread) to his brain.
  • Heartworms: Heartworms can’t thrive inside a cat, and very few live to adulthood. But immature worms still cause a world of hurt for cats, including being the cause of heartworm-associated respiratory disease (HARD). Heartworms used to be a thing only people in the southern United States worried about, but as our climate changes, the range of these worms is expanding ever northward. Be sure you know whether heartworm disease is a risk in your area. Learn more about heartworm disease in cats at the American Heartworm Society.
  • Inhaled foreign object: If your cat breathed in something like a blade of grass, that could result in severe and sustained coughing.

What should you do for your coughing cat?

If it’s not a life-and-death emergency, take a deep breath, and then use your phone to capture video of your cat’s coughing. Your cat will be able to tell a lot about what’s bothering your cat by seeing the problem in real life. Cats are notorious for hiding illness and pain at the vet’s office, so if you take some video of the coughing happening, it will be a huuuuuuuuuuuge help for your vet. (I actually recommend videoing all strange symptoms. If your cat is limping, take some video of her walking. And take pictures of your cat’s vomit if you’re worried about it and email them to the vet.)

If your cat is struggling to breathe, go to an emergency vet clinic. Now. This is a life-and-death emergency! You can tell when a cat is struggling to breathe because they move their chest and their abdomen. It’s not normal for a cat’s whole belly to move when she’s breathing. A cat who is struggling to breathe will most likely be open-mouth breathing instead of breathing through their nose. They may have a slightly panicked look in their eyes.

This video shows a cat with congestive heart failure struggling to breathe. Notice how the cat’s whole body is moving when they try to breathe in. Also notice the strange movement of the abdomen, like the abdomen is going in when the chest goes out, and vice versa.

If your cat is breathing well but having regular coughing fits, call your veterinarian and get an appointment. Tell the front desk staff you have video of your cat coughing and ask if they’d like you to upload it to a Google drive where they can access it. That way, your vet can view the video before your appointment, if they have time. Take notes about when and where your cat has coughing fits. If they cough when they’re sitting by an open window, that might point to allergies. But if they cough after they’ve run a couple of laps around your apartment, that may be more suggestive of asthma.

And if your vet didn’t have a chance to look at your video, you can share it with them at your visit.

The last word

An occasional cough in a cat is generally no big deal. But if your coughing cat is coughing every day, or the cough seems to recur on a regular basis, please do get your furry friend in to the vet. Hopefully if your cat is coughing, it’ll only be allergies, like it was with Tara. But if it’s more than that, please know you’re not alone. You’re going to have a lot of tough decisions in front of you, and just know that you can’t go wrong as long as your first consideration is your cat’s quality of life.

Have you ever had a coughing cat? Did you find out what was going on? Do you also have a kitty with hay fever like my Tara? Let’s talk about it in the comments! And, of course, if there are any subjects in this post that you want me to cover more, please let me know that, too.