Coughing (tussis) is a natural response by the body to any irritation or abnormality of the airway. All cats will naturally cough from time to time and it can indicate that something is irritating the throat, airways, or lungs. A persistent cough however can be a symptom of a more serious underlying medical condition but this is not always the case. There are many common causes which may result in your cat coughing. It can be distressing to see your cat coughing so our guide contains expert advice from qualified and registered veterinary nurses to help you choose the best course of action for your pet and help to answer any questions you may have.
Symptoms and presenting signs
• Wheezing or other unusual respiratory noises.
• Rapid or difficulty breathing or increased effort to breathe.
• Persistent cough or gagging sound.
• Coughing up mucous or fluids – this is known as a productive cough. Your cat may produce frothy mucus while coughing.
• Difficulty breathing after exertion.
• Your cat may be lethargic or seem more tired than normal.
• Other symptoms associated with a cough include, a nose (nasal) or eye (ocular) discharge, snuffles, gagging, retching and occasionally vomiting.
• Asthma -Is one of the most common causes of coughing in cats. Asthma in cats is a chronic inflammation of the small airways in the lungs. Although this cannot be completely cured, symptoms can often be alleviated with medication. Common triggers include household cleaning products, pollens and grasses, dust mites, tobacco smoke and even some foods.
• Cat flu – (Feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirusis) is a very common disease that can vary considerably in severity. It is possible to minimize the possibility of your cat catching cat flu by having them vaccinated, starting from a kitten. Your cat will require an annual booster vaccination.
• Lung disease – Pneumonia. A cough which sounds wet or is productive can mean there is a build of fluid in the lungs, often cause by infection. If the infection is bacterial your cat may be given a course of antibiotics by the vet.
• Airway obstruction – Swallowing a foreign body which becomes stuck in the airway.
This is especially common in kittens and cats which like to scavenge or chew toys.
If you believe your cat has an airway obstruction you should consider this an emergency and contact your vet immediately.
• Cancer – Cancers affecting the lungs, either primary or secondary in nature can be a cause of cats coughing.
• Worms – There are several species of internal parasites such as roundworms which can migrate to the airways and lungs of cats causing them to develop a cough.
• Fungal infections – A fungal infection such as Aspergillosis can result in irritation in the nose and upper airways triggering a cough in cats. You may notice a discharge from the nose, nosebleed, swelling and pain in the area around and above the nose.
A predisposition towards contracting this disease was found in brachycephalic cat breeds, especially Persians.
• Heart worms – Not commonly found in the UK as they are transmitted by infected mosquitos. However if you are taking your pet abroad to Europe your vet will be able to advise about appropriate preventative treatments.
Diagnosis of coughs in cats
This very much depends on the nature of your cat’s cough and for how long it has been present. Diagnosis will often start with a thorough clinical examination where your vet will take a detailed history and ask you several questions. They will examine your cat and listen to the heart and lungs. Sometimes it may be necessary to run a few tests or carry out an MRI or CT scan or take an x-ray or ECG (Echocardiogram) if the cause of your cat’s cough is not immediately obvious. Blood tests or swabs may be taken as part of the clinical examination or faecal screens to check for the presence of internal parasites such as worms. Some procedures may need to carried out under sedation or anaesthetic and your cat will usually stay with the vet for a few hours and come home that same day depending on the diagnosis. Your vet will be able to advise you on this and explain any procedures they feel are necessary in order to make a diagnosis. If the cough is sporadic or infrequent in nature then recording the episodes on a mobile phone or tablet can be prove really useful in helping your vet to make an accurate diagnosis. Sometimes your cat may need to be referred to a veterinary specialist, especially if the cough is caused by a heart condition or cancer. Your vet will explain how referrals work and advise you about who would be the best person to treat your cat
Treatment for coughs in cats
The aim of any treatment will be to deal with the underlying cause of the cough as diagnosed by your vet. Treatment may include a course of antibiotics if the cough is due to presence of a bacterial infection. Viral infections often have to run their natural course but your cat can be supported with other helpful measures to reduce symptoms such as rest and encouragement to eat and drink fluids regularly. Keeping your cat in a calm relaxed state, away from extremes of temperature may also help to minimise symptoms.
If the cause of your cat’s cough is diagnosed as a parasitic infection such as lung worm or round worm then your cat will be prescribed a course of appropriate worming treatment and they will require regular check-ups to ensure the infection has completely cleared.
If an allergy (air pollution, pollens, cigarette smoke, air fresheners) has been diagnosed as the cause of your cat’s cough, the symptoms will often subside once the cat has been removed from the source of the problem.
Others causes of coughs, such as serious infections may require more specific treatments which could result in your cat staying at the vets for in-patient treatment. Your vet will be able to explain the reason for this to you and you will receive regular updates on your cat’s progress. Most cases will be treated at home.
Preventing coughs in cats
• Coughs caused by infectious viruses such as cat flu can be prevented by a vaccination programme starting from when your cat is a young kitten. Yearly booster vaccinations will be required.
• Regular parasite control is an important part of your pet’s preventative health care programme to guard against infection from internal and external parasites.
• Routine health checks, often carried out at the time of your cat’s annual vaccination can help to pick up any underlying medical issues which may otherwise go unnoticed.
• Keeping your cat’s weight within normal ranges can help to reduce the risk of your pet developing a disease or condition which may result in your cat coughing.
• Keep any dangerous items which your kitten or cat may be tempted to chew or swallow well out of harms reach.
• Keeping the use of chemicals, air fresheners and other potential allergens in the house to a minimum, especially if your cat is known to be asthmatic.
How can I tell if my cat is having difficulty breathing and what should I do?
If your cat is having difficulty breathing associated with their cough you may see them open mouth breathing or gasping for air. You may hear unusual respiratory noises or wheezing and their breathing rate or rhythm may look abnormal, either rapid (tachypnoea) or very slow and laboured (dyspnoea). Your cat may extend their head or neck forwards in an effort to get more air and you may also notice their gums are grey or blue tinged in colour compared to the normal pink.
If your cat is having difficulty breathing, is wheezing or you can hear unusual respiratory noises OR if they cough up a significant amount of blood you should consider this an emergency and contact your vet immediately.
Why has my cat suddenly started to cough?
If your cat suddenly develops a persistent, distressing or acute cough check first for any obvious airway obstructions. Has your cat recently been playing with or chewing a toy which is now missing?
If you believe your pet may have an airway obstruction you should keep your cat calm and contact your vet immediately.
Why is my cat coughing and how can I tell if it is serious?
A cough is a natural response to an irritant in your cat’s airways. If you pet is bright and lively and only has a mild cough without any other clinical symptoms then the cough may not be serious. Our experienced nurses at PetGP will be able to help assess your cat and let you know if we think you need to contact your vet.
Why do cats get asthma and should I be concerned?
Asthma is an upper respiratory disease which causes your cat to cough and wheeze. The condition can be chronic or acute in nature. The cat’s immune system overreacts to the presence of an allergen, however the allergens responsible are not always easy to diagnose. When an asthma attack occurs the airways narrow and thicken making it difficult for your cat to breathe. The lungs may also begin to discharge mucus into the airways, leading to episodes of coughing and wheezing. You may notice or hear a change in your cat’s normal breathing. Your cat’s condition could potentially deteriorate rapidly and may require veterinary treatment.
If you think your cat is having difficulty breathing you should contact a vet immediately.
What should I do if my cat develops a cough?
If your cat has developed cough it is best to keep them calm and avoid any situations where they could become excited or anxious as this could make the cough worse. Keep exercise or movement to a minimum and contact one of our experienced nurses at PetGP who will be able to help assess your cat and let you know if they think you need to contact your vet.
What can I give my cat to help with its cough?
A cough suppressant may sometimes be recommended by your vet to help with the symptoms of a dry non-productive cough, however it is not advisable to administer any human cough preparations or suppressants to your cat without consulting with your vet first. Some human cough preparations contain ingredients such as xylitol, caffeine and ibuprofen which are all extremely toxic to cats. Some cough preparations also contain high levels of anti-histamines and decongestants which can also be unsafe for your cat to have.
Finding the cause of your cat’s cough.
As noted above, the causes of coughing in cats can be wide ranging.
At PetGP our UK based veterinary nurses follow strict guidelines laid out by our veterinary director and ask a series of questions that determine the relative seriousness of your pet’s condition.
These will hopefully rule out the more serious cases (which must be dealt with by a vet) and leads to advice on what you should do next for your pet. If appropriate, our experienced and knowledgeable veterinary nurses will give advice relevant to your pet’s condition based on your answers.
• Our UK based Registered Veterinary Nurses will ask you several questions designed to assess (triage) the condition.
• You will need to be with your cat as we will ask you to check a few things while you are on the phone to us.
• We will ask if you how long your cat has had a cough for and any other symptoms you have noticed such as tiredness (lethargy), reduced appetite and if the cough is productive.
• We will ask if your cat is currently on any medication as this could also be relevant.
Call us at PetGP or visit https://pet-gp.co.uk/ if you are unsure or worried and our expert nurses will advise you on what to do next. If the situation does not merit a trip to the vet, we will give you suitable advice for managing the situation at home.