What do I do if my cat is coughing and sneezing?

An occasional sneeze or cough from your cat is common, but when does a simple “Bless you!” suffice and when should you be concerned? How can you tell if the strange noise coming from your cat is even a sneeze or a cough at all? It’s not always easy to tell, so take a video of your cat during an episode to help your vet with their diagnosis and read on to learn more about the number of reasons why your cat may be wheezing, coughing or sneezing.

Why is my cat coughing?

Cats can cough just like people do, but less frequently. When irritants, dust, mucus or other particles enter the cat’s airways, a protective reflex is triggered to get rid of them in the form of a cough. Coughing on rare occasions (once every few months or even less frequently) could be normal, but most cats do not cough unless something is wrong.

Some of the causes of coughing in cats include:

  • Respiratory Infections
    A respiratory tract infection (RTI) is an infectious disease that can affect the nose, sinuses and throat (upper respiratory tract), airways or lungs (lower respiratory tract) of your cat. More on this below.
  • Feline Asthma (or Chronic Bronchitis)
    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.
  • Pneumonia
    Pneumonia in cats refers to inflammation of the lungs in general. A cough which sounds wet or is productive can mean there is a build of fluid in the lungs, often caused by infection. Your vet will recommend taking radiographs of your cat to help rule out pneumonia.
  • Pleural Effusion
    This is an abnormal buildup of fluid around a cat’s lungs that can result in coughing. The most common cause of pleural effusion is heart failure although there are other causes that your vet will rule out.
  • Hairballs
    While it often sounds like coughing, you aren’t dealing with a cough but rather the cat is actually retching or gagging, since the hairball is emerging from the digestive tract, not the respiratory tract.
  • Foreign Object in the Throat
    Cats can cough from the presence of foreign material within the airway (like inhaled grass) or irritation from inhaled liquids or gases. If you believe your cat has an airway obstruction you should consider this an emergency and contact your vet immediately.
  • Cancer
    A large mass growing in the chest or throat area could push on the trachea (windpipe) or air passages of the lungs causing a cough. Or cancer may be present inside the throat, windpipe, or air passages themselves.
  • Heartworm Disease
    Heartworm in cats is a serious but rare condition caused by parasites known as heartworms that are transmitted by mosquitos. They cause a condition known as heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD). Symptoms may include coughing, asthma-like attacks, periodic vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss. Cats are not the ideal host for heartworms and often the worms die before reaching their adult stage. Most infected cats are found to have very few heartworms when they are infected and the symptoms that we see in cats are often a result of the inflammatory response they have to the heartworms. The only way to protect your cat is with a monthly heartworm preventative.
  • Parasites
    Lungworms can present as a cough in affected cats. Lungworms are a parasite that live in the lungs and small airways and are transmitted when a cat ingests an infected slug or snail. The diagnosis of this infection is made through evaluating a fecal sample from an infected cat to look for larvae of the lungworm. They are not always present in each sample so multiple samples may be needed.

When should I call the vet about my cat’s cough?

If the cough continues for more than a few days, or there are many episodes in a day, or if the cough is productive (results in the production of phlegm or sputum), worsening, keeps coming back, or if your cat appears sick or is losing weight, you should consult your veterinarian. They will be able to diagnose and treat the cause of your cat’s coughing.

Why is my cat sneezing?

Just like humans, there are different reasons why a cat may sneeze. The tickle in their nose may be due to environmental factors or it could be the result of an illness or infection.

Some of the causes of sneezing in cats include:

  • Environmental Factors
    A bit of household or litter box dust, pollen, candles, perfume, cigarette smoke, mold and cleaning products can cause the occasional reflexive sneeze.
  • A foreign object
    Foreign bodies like a piece of lint, grass or a hair can get stuck in the nasal cavities. Most of the time, a cat’s sneeze will expel such objects safely. If the object isn’t “sneezed out” there is a likelihood that the foreign object will result in a nasal infection, so it’s best to get this checked out.
  • Respiratory Infections
    Sneezing is often associated with a viral infection, or sometimes bacteria infections of the upper respiratory tract. More on this below.
  • Dental Disease
    Inflammation or infection of a tooth, especially on the upper jaw, can affect the nasal passages/sinuses and trigger the sneeze reflex.
  • Cancer
    Some forms of cancer develop in the sinuses, nasal passages or bones around the nasal passages and these may present as sneezing as the initial symptom.

When should I call the vet for my sneezing cat?

If your cat’s sneezing is persistent or accompanied by other symptoms like nasal discharge, labored breathing, loss of appetite or fever, call your vet. Sneezing accompanied by other symptoms could be a sign your cat is suffering from an upper respiratory infection or other underlying condition that may require veterinary care.

What are Cat Respiratory Infections?

The respiratory system in cats goes from the nose all the way to the lungs. When an infection is in the respiratory system of cats, the cells lining the system become inflamed and produce a larger amount of mucus than normal. Infections can be caused by a variety of pathogens including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. There are generally two types of respiratory infections in cats: upper and lower respiratory infections.

Upper respiratory infections

Upper respiratory infections affect the nasal cavity, throat, and voice box/larynx. Cat coughing combined with sneezing may indicate an upper respiratory infection. Infection of the nasal passages leads to sneezing and a snotty nose, but some of the discharge flows back into the throat, producing a cough. Symptoms may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion (stuffiness, so that you can hear your cat breathing)
  • Runny eyes or nose (can be watery or yellow-green discharge)
  • Change in voice (the meow sounds different or hushed)
  • Swallowing more dramatically
  • Mild to moderate decrease in activity or appetite

Lower respiratory infections

Lower respiratory infections affect the windpipe and lungs. This can be called bronchitis or pneumonia, depending upon where in the lungs they reside. Radiographs will help your veterinarian to determine this. Symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Increased effort to breathe, noted by dramatic chest movements
  • Wheeze when breathing out
  • Lack of appetite
  • Moderate to severe decrease in activity
  • Respiratory distress – panting (breathing loudly with mouth open), belly and chest moving dramatically to breathe

Causes of Respiratory Infections in Cats

  • Viruses
    90% of all cases are caused by Feline Herpesvirus (FVR) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
  • Bacteria
    Bacterial infections such as Bordatella bronchiseptica (B. bronchiseptica) or Chlamydophila felis (C. felis) may be responsible for RTIs in cats. Kittens are more likely to have infections caused by bacteria because their immune systems are not fully mature.
  • Fungi
    Fungal infections are typically caused by environmental transmission and are more common in certain parts of the country.
  • Parasites Most parasitic infections come from eating prey species such as birds or or snails and slugs as discussed above.

How to Stop the Spread & Prevent Respiratory Infections

Although you can’t catch an upper respiratory infection from your cat, they are very contagious between felines, so it’s important to take the proper steps to prevent a viral infection from spreading.

  • Viruses can have an incubation period of around two to 14 days and asymptomatic cats may still be contagious.
  • Keep your sick cat in a separate room where they can rest comfortably. Make sure to provide plenty of fresh water for your patient.
  • Put a towel or blanket at the bottom of the door to prevent cats from smelling each other or touching paws under the door.
  • Wash your hands and change clothing after any interaction with your sick cat
  • Clean the food and water bowls, litter box and carrier of the infected cat thoroughly. You should also wash any bedding they may have used.
  • Keeping your cat up to date on vaccinations will help protect against these types of infections.
  • When bringing in a new cat to your household, it is best to keep them away from your other cats until the incubation period for viral illness has passed – about 2 weeks.

What are the treatments for cat coughing and sneezing?

Treatment of a cat’s coughing and/or sneezing depends on the underlying cause. Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam, run bloodwork, possibly a fecal or take radiographs, if needed and gather information about the cat’s environment and lifestyle from you to make the best diagnosis. Treatments may include antibiotic or antiviral medications, cardiac medications, cultures, fluid removal if it is causing respiratory distress, fluid & oxygen therapy, bronchoscopy, surgery, or cancer treatment.

Schedule your veterinary appointment today if your cat is showing any coughing or sneezing. During your cat’s annual examination, your veterinarian will listen to your cat’s lungs and heart to help catch issues before they are more serious. Prevention of disease and early detection are the best ways to keep your cat healthy!

Lisa Beagan

Lisa Beagan

Dr. Lisa Beagan is a 1995 graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. After working in an equine practice then a small animal clinic, she opened Mobile Pet Vet in 2003. Dr. Beagan has also completed a veterinary acupuncture certification through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society.

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