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Cat Coughing - Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

What is coughing?

Coughing is the expulsion of air from the airways and serves as a protective measure designed to rid the airways of foreign particles, mucus, irritants, and microbes. It is not a disease in itself but it is a sign of an underlying problem. It is seen less often in cats than it is in dogs. It may be acute (sudden onset), or chronic (long-lasting) and may be dry and hacking or wet, producing mucus. The type and frequency of a cough can give your veterinarian a clue as to what the cause may be.

What causes coughing in cats?

There are a number of causes of coughing in cats ranging from mild to severe. Some of which include:

  • Heartworm - Worm infection of the heart and lungs.
  • Cat flu - Caused by a number of viruses including feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, and feline reovirus.
  • Lungworm - Worm infection of the lungs.
  • Roundworm migration - Migration of roundworms from the bloodstream to the lungs.
  • Asthma - Tightening of the airways.
  • 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 intestines.
  • Lung tumours - Benign or cancerous tumours of the lungs. May have originated in the lungs or spread (metastasized) from another location.
  • Nasopharyngeal polyps - Benign growths arising from the mucous membranes of the nose.
  • Fungal infection - Blastomycosis.
  • Feline Bordetella - Bacterial cough caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica, it is the same bacteria which causes kennel cough in dogs.
  • 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.

How is the cause of coughing diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you. 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.
  • Coughing accompanied by weight loss, anorexia, lethargy may suggest worms.


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 organ function.
  • 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 flotation which may detect the presence of roundworm eggs.
  • Tracheal endoscopy to evaluate the trachea. Biopsies and phlegm may be removed for testing.
  • Thoracic fluid analysis where pleural effusion is present.

How is coughing treated?

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.

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.

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