Coughing in Cats

Cat eating grass

Coughing is very common with cats and can be triggered by numerous causes. A cough is an explosive expulsion of air from the lungs through the cat's mouth. The trigger for this symptom is always a stimulus that triggers the associated cough reflex. The objective of this reflex is either to cough out foreign bodies or to remove bronchial mucus from the respiratory tract.

Causes of coughing in cats

Due to the diverse nature of how coughs develop in cats, it makes sense to split the causes into infectious and non-infectious categories for better understanding: 

Non-infectious causes

Aspirated foreign bodies (e.g. blades of grass or strands) found in the respiratory tract are particularly common causes of acute coughing in cats. For instance, blades of grass stick to the palate and lead to a retching cough. Besides though, allergic reactions such as feline asthma, respiratory tract injuries and inhaling gases (e.g. as part of smoke intoxication) can also lead to coughing in cats. Feline asthma causes severe inflammation of the bronchi, which is typically characterised by attacks of shortness of breath and retching at the end of the cough. A tumour is also another possibility for chronic cat coughs. Unlike dogs, cats don't cough due to cardiac diseases. 

Infectious causes

This category includes numerous bacterial and viral antigens, as well as fungi and parasites: 

Kittens in particular often show signs of infection from cat colds. This infectious disease occurs globally and leads to conjunctivitis and damage to the mucous membrane along with coughing. 

The following pathogens play a significant role in the onset of the disease: 

  • Viruses: caliciviruses, feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV-1). 
  • Bacteria: chlamydia felis, mycoplasma, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Pasteurella and Klebsiella. 

Along with cat colds, however, parasites can also lead to coughing. For example, pulmonary worms can enter the respiratory tract through oral ingestion. The worms there cause inflammatory reactions.

Symptoms of coughing in cats

The character of the cough and possible concomitant symptoms depend on the reason for the illness: 

  • General symptoms: fatigue, fever (e.g. with infectious diseases), loss of appetite and weight loss. 
  • Coughing: pain, liquid additives (e.g blood, pus, mucus), acute or chronic. 
  • Other respiratory symptoms: sneezing, shortness of breath, breathing noises (e.g. whistling, rattling), nasal discharge, difficulties swallowing, retching. 

Diagnosis

It is very important for the vet to define the character of the cough in order to make a diagnosis. The vet asks about the frequency and intensity of the cough, its productivity (coughing up possible fluids) or whether coughing increases in certain situations (e.g. when eating). It is also beneficial to be able to assess whether it is an acute or chronic cough in order to better narrow down differential diagnoses. Whilst tumourous events are usually chronic, a blade of grass that gets stuck causes acute coughing instead. 

If the vet is able to categorise the cough more precisely on the basis of the information requested, this leads to a general clinical examination as the next step. This allows the cat's current state of health to be determined using several vital parameters. These include: 

  • General condition (e.g. attentive, absent) 
  • Heart and respiratory rate 
  • Condition of the mucous membranes (e.g. sticky, pale, pink) 
  • Internal body temperature 

The cat having a stable circulatory condition is important for further examining the respiratory tract. If the vital parameters show something different, it may be necessary to carry out infusions to stabilise circulation. 

Different diagnostic methods can be used during further examination. Adspection (observation) and cautious palpation (touching) of the oral cavity can rule out existing foreign bodies. The vet then uses a stethoscope to monitor the respiratory tract. If there is any suspicion that internal structures may be altered (e.g. due to tumours), the organs in the rib cage, especially the lungs, will be more closely examined using imaging procedures (e.g. X-rays). However, blood and faecal analysis have proved to be particularly useful in clearing up infectious diseases. 

Treatment

Treating cat coughs depends greatly on the particular cause. Treatment can be special or symptomatic.

Special treatment: 

  • Infectious diseases: e.g. deworming methods, antibiotics 
  • Tumourous events: if necessary chemotherapy, radiotherapy or operative procedures 
  • Allergic reactions: antihistamines, desensitisation 
  • Foreign bodies: surgical removal (possibly under anaesthetic) 

Symptomatic treatment: 

  • Medication to soothe irritating coughs
  • Anti-inflammatories 
  • Suppressing the immune system: cortisone (e.g. with feline asthma) 
  • Supporting the immune system: vitamin supplements
  • Hygiene measures to avoid spreading infectious agents 

Prognosis

Like treatment, prognosis of cat coughs depends on the underlying disease. As a rule, a pulmonary worm infestation diagnosed at an early stage in cats can be well treated with worming medication. This is also the case with cat colds and other infectious diseases. The prognosis of feline asthma depends on the allergens that trigger it. If it's possible for the cat to entirely avoid contact with allergens, the prognosis for an undisrupted feline life is good. If the allergens cannot be avoided, it is possible to alleviate symptoms with certain medication to improve quality of life. 

Prevention

The following preventive measures are helpful to avoid infectious diseases: 

  • Regular cleaning (e.g. litter box) 
  • Avoiding contact with sick cats 
  • Vaccination against caliciviruses, feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV-1) and chlamydophila felis 
  • Effective and regular parasite prevention 
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