If your cat has a cough, there are several potential causes. Cats do not normally cough, so when they do, it is important to look at why. A single, occasional cough may not be a sign of alarm. Regular coughing is cause for greater concern, as it can signal an infection, or a serious problem of the lungs and heart.
Coughing in cats is usually a sign of an inflammatory process or irritation to the respiratory tract. If a cat begins coughing and sneezing, or develops nasal or eye discharge, the cause may be Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, a form of the herpesvirus. The virus is highly contagious between cats, and can be transmitted through nose-to-nose contact, or by sharing bowls. Although this virus does not tend to cause serious illness in most cats, it can be deadly in kittens, and in some cases can become chronic. Cats that develop the chronic form of the disease will also continue to shed the virus throughout their life, continually able to infect cats they come into contact with.
The retching that accompanies a cat trying to expel a hairball is often mistaken for a cough. Cats may cough when they have a hairball, as the force of expelling a hairball irritates their trachea. Brushing the cat frequently to remove excess hair and administration of a hairball remedy to assist passage of the hairball through the digestive tract can help to control and prevent the problem. In serious cases, surgical intervention may be required to remove a hairball that cannot be expelled naturally by the cat.
Internal parasite infections can also be a cause of coughing, especially in kittens. Ingestion of hookworms or roundworm larva or eggs can introduce the worms to the body, and as the eggs hatch in the intestine, the larva is then carried to the lungs via the bloodstream. From the lungs, the worms crawl up the windpipe and cause gagging and coughing, before returning to the intestine to grow into adults.
Another type of parasite that can cause coughing in cats is Heartworm Disease. Although more common in dogs than in cats, heartworm larva and microfilaria are transmitted through a mosquito bite, and the worms migrate to the heart, where they mature and grow, destroying heart muscle. Heartworms also cause an inflammatory response in the lungs, which can, along with heart damage, cause a moist, chronic cough. Unfortunately once a cough is present, the heartworm disease is quite advanced. Although heartworm disease can be cured, treatment is dangerous and costly, and damage done to the heart and longs prior to treatment is irreversible. If you live in an area where heartworm disease is prevalent, your veterinarian may recommend a monthly pill that can be given to prevent heartworm disease.
If your cat has a cough, and it is an older cat, heart problems may be to blame. Coughing is one of the most constant signs of heart disease in cats. As the heart begins to have trouble functioning properly, fluid can build up around the heart and lungs, causing a cough, rapid breathing and difficulty taking full, deep breaths.
Other conditions such as pneumonia, a foreign body in the airway, and tumors in the chest can cause coughing as well, If your cat has a cough, it is important to seek veterinary attention immediately to diagnose and treat the underlying condition.
Your veterinarian will first take a history of your cats cough- when it most frequently occurs, frequency of coughing and the type of cough (wet, dry, is anything ever coughed up, etc). A comprehensive physical exam will include careful auscultation of your cats heart and lungs with a stethoscope, listening for the rate and quality of heart beat, checking for murmurs, as well as listening to the lungs to access the quality of breath sounds and check for crackling or wheezing as they breathe.
Your veterinarian may recommend performing blood work, such as a complete blood count and chemistry. Blood chemistries look at a variety of body systems, and will give your vet a reading as to the basic health of your cats major organs such as the kidneys and liver. The CBC evaluates the components of your cats blood, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The CBC will help to diagnose or rule out infection as a potential cause of your cats cough. If heartworm is considered a possible cause, a separate test can be run on the blood to detect the presence of heartworms in your cat.
If parasites are a concern, your vet may recommend a fecal examination, or prescribe a dewormer to treat for the most common types of parasites.
Chest X-rays are an important part of the evaluation of your cats cough. X-rays can reveal an enlarged heart (due to heart disease or ongoing damage), and the lungs can be screened for tumors, pneumonia, and other inflammation.
If no obvious cause of coughing is found after undergoing tests, feline asthma may be to blame. Like the condition of the same name in humans, asthma is a type of allergic bronchitis, causing coughing, wheezing and labored breathing. Often cats with asthma will behave normally, until they suddenly have a coughing episode. An allergen in the environment can trigger an irritation, causing the airways to constrict and fill with mucous. Although occasionally the allergen in the environment can be identified and eliminated, most times the cause remains a mystery, and treatment is aimed at minimizing the inflammatory response of the body, normally through long term administration of oral steroids, and medicines that reverse airway constriction, called bronchodilators.
If your cat has a cough, there are a number of causes that may be responsible. Because of the serious nature of many of these problems, veterinary attention must be sought to diagnose and treat the underlying cause of cough in your cat.