Similar to humans, coughing in cats is a reflex. But unlike us, coughing in cats is not very common. Should you be worried?

We all know what it's like to cough. Sometimes it's just a one-off action to clear the airways of something small and irritable. Other times the cough persists and persists and comes from deeper within the chest. But we don't typically associate cats with coughing - except when they're coughing up hairballs.

So what about other forms of coughing? Is it normal if you hear your cat coughing?

Coughing in cats

The aim of coughing is to expel unwanted substances such as foreign particles, mucus, microbes, irritants, food or drink from blocking the airways. This includes hairballs.

There are a range of different reasons why your cat might cough, ranging from these hairballs, to a small lodged item, to something more serious.

But coughing in cats is not a common occurrence and should be taken seriously, especially if the coughing persists or your cat seems distressed when doing so. In fact, persistent coughing is merely a symptom of an underlying issue. Veterinary attention will therefore be required.

What causes cats to cough?

Similar to children, cats can often be seen chewing on a range of different items such as plants, grass, string, or even pieces of Christmas tinsel. If a small piece is inhaled or ingested, it is often during the passage in the larynx that a reflexive cough is produced in order to signal the irritation and expel the foreign body.

In rarer but more serious cases, hooks, needles, fishbones or splinters that get trapped at the entrance of the throat will produce a much more frightening reaction from your cat. This is likely to be in the form of a harsh, dry cough characterised by repeated, painful swallowing and retching motions. Urgent medical care will need to be sought in such circumstances.

Witnessing a cat coughing up a hairball can also be quite a confronting experience. Together with the sound, the appearance of them seemingly choking is not what one would normally call pleasant.

However, your cat may well be coughing for other reasons, signalling a more serious, underlying health condition.

Underlying health issues

In young cats especially, common respiratory infections (coryza) can cause a build-up of mucus that can travel from the nasal cavity to the back of the throat. Just like us, your cat's throat will become inflamed and sore and you will probably notice them swallowing more often. They will also likely cough when the throat is irritated by the mucus build-up.

The simple act of eating can also provoke a cough when a respiratory infection is present. Do not give your cat any form of medication from your own stock as these can be toxic to your cat and may result in more severe issues. Instead, consult your vet who will assess the situation and symptoms, and likely prescribe a treatment lasting several days.

In older cats, the presence of polyps can lead to chronic inflammation and discharge. Coughing in this case is a symptom of the underlying problem. Again, veterinary attention will be required.

A hacking cough is where your cat appears to have difficulty breathing. They may lie down, stomach to the floor with their head stretched up, trying to find their breath. These attacks are often caused by an allergy or even asthma, the causes for which are multiple.

If your cat lives in a smoking environment, this can also be an aggravating factor for them. It can also be responsible for the development of a pulmonary tumour, for which coughing is the only symptom. In such diagnoses, your vet will take a pulmonary radiography in order to localise the nature and the topography of the lesions. Other examinations may include a tracheo-bronchial lavage (an examination of the bronchial secretions) or a biopsy of the lung tissue, both of which are performed under general anaesthetic.

Although much rarer in cats than in dogs or humans, coughing can also be a symptom for shortness of breath linked to a cardiac deficiency or even a thoracic effusion (a build-up of fluid around the lungs).

Regardless of the cough, if your cat appears in discomfort or is coughing frequently, it is important to have them examined thoroughly to ensure any underlying health concerns are addressed quickly.

For those who are unsure about where their cat came from, or their history, they may well have had increased exposure to other cats and parasites. This means that a thorough examination by a vet will help to rule out any underlying issues.

Have you ever heard your cat cough?

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