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What’s That Cough? The Facts About Lung Problems in Cats

Cats coughing can signal lung problems -- let's look at the most common lung issues in cats.

Dr. Arnold Plotnick  |  Jan 20th 2016


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the November/December issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

How do we know that a cat is experiencing a lung problem? A primary clinical sign of a lung problem is coughing. (Hey, wanna drive a veterinarian crazy? Tell him that your cat is trying to “cough up a hairball.” Hairballs come from the stomach. Cats vomit up hairballs; they do not “cough” them up.)

If your cat hunkers down, extends his neck, and makes several raspy throat-clearing sounds, he is coughing, and it is not a hairball. It is likely asthma or bronchitis.

Another sign of lung disease is labored breathing. The medical term for this is dyspnea (DISP-nee-uh). If your cat is lying around relaxing, but his chest is moving as if he’s just done a few laps around the jogging track, there’s probably a lung issue going on. He needs veterinary attention immediately.

Cat not impressed by vet by Shutterstock

Cat not impressed by vet by Shutterstock

Here’s another way to drive your veterinarian batty: Tell him your cat has been wheezing

Wheezing is the sound of air trying to flow through narrowed airways in the lungs. It’s something you hear when you put a stethoscope up to a cat’s chest. When I’m told a cat is wheezing, I instinctively think “lung problem.” When a cat owner says, “Wheezing,” he probably means stertor, which is noisy breathing that occurs during inhalation. It’s a low-pitched sound. In other words, your cat is snoring. This is not a lung problem.

Another possibility is that the cat has a blockage of the nasal passages (simply put, a stuffy nose), resulting in high-pitched, noisy breathing. This is called stridor.

Because wheezing usually means lung disease and lung disease is sometimes an emergency, don’t say your cat is wheezing. It freaks us out. Say your cat is congested or has noisy breathing instead. I (and thousands of veterinarians) thank you.

Cat X-ray by Shutterstock

Cat X-ray by Shutterstock

The lungs demystified

Feline lungs are remarkably similar to your own lungs. For example, the lungs occupy most of the space in the chest cavity, lying on both sides of the heart, just like they do in humans.

I think of the lungs as being divided into two portions — the airways and the lung tissue. Imagine a tree in full bloom. The trunk of the tree is like the trachea (windpipe). The trunk goes up a bit and then divides into two big branches. Those are the main bronchi. Those big branches give rise to smaller branches. Those are the bronchioles. Those branches divide into smaller and smaller branches, which is exactly what happens to the bronchioles in the lungs. Finally, think of the leaves that grow on all of the small branches as the lung tissue that surrounds the little bronchioles. Get the picture? The trunk, branches, and twigs are the airways; the leaves are the lung tissue.

The lungs have two main jobs: ventilation and perfusion. Ventilation is breathing — the movement of air in and out of the lungs. Perfusion is the process by which the lung absorbs oxygen from the air into the bloodstream and exchanges it for carbon dioxide, which is exhaled into the environment.

Most of the time, ventilation and perfusion are both happening correctly and simultaneously, allowing the blood to receive the proper amount of oxygen for delivery to the vital organs. When something goes wrong with the lungs, there could be an airway problem, which can affect ventilation, or a problem with the lung tissue itself, which can affect perfusion.

Large tabby at the vet by Shutterstock

Large tabby at the vet by Shutterstock

Lung disorders and problems

1. A common lung disorder in cats is bronchitis. Infectious bronchitis is due to an infection (usually bacterial) of the airways. The infection causes impaired flow of air through the airways. This affects ventilation. Infectious bronchitis is treated with antibiotics.

2. Asthma is a type of bronchitis caused by an allergy to something in the environment. When a cat breathes in an allergen, it causes the airways to constrict. It becomes harder for air to pass through these narrowed airways. The cells lining the airways become irritated by the allergen, and they will produce mucus, which may plug the already narrowed airways.

Asthma is treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and drugs that dilate the airways, making it easier to breathe. Of course, the best treatment for asthma would be to remove the offending allergen from the environment (cigarette smokers, take the hint), although identifying the allergen can be difficult.

3. An example of a problem with the lung tissue itself would be a bacterial infection of the lungs. This is called pneumonia. When the lung tissues get infected and the lung fills with pus, it prevents oxygen from being absorbed into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide from being removed. Pneumonia is treated with antibiotics.

4. Another condition affecting the lung tissue is pulmonary edema. In this disorder, the lung fills with fluid, which impairs perfusion similar to the way pneumonia does.

Pulmonary edema usually occurs as a result of heart failure. Pulmonary edema is treated with diuretics — drugs designed to remove the fluid from the lungs. If heart disease is the cause, medications to treat the heart are administered as well.

Read more about the health of cats:

About the author: Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is the former Ask the Veterinarian columnist for CAT FANCY magazine, and is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Crispy. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.