Cat yowling or making another sound.
Cat yowling or making another sound. Photography ©Анатолий Тушенцов | Thinkstock.

Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet?

Is your cat wheezing or is it just a hairball? Here's how to tell the difference, why cats wheeze and what you should do about cat wheezing.
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One of my cats, Gabby, will sometimes make a coughing, wheezing sound, almost like he’s about to cough up a hairball or do the infamous scarf-and-barf move, but sometimes, nothing comes up! So, is cat wheezing something to worry about? And does cat wheezing always mean a trip to the vet?

First, what does cat wheezing sound like?

As any cat parent knows, cats make all sorts of weird sounds. Both of my cats do the scarf-and-barf every once in a while, meaning that sometimes they will eat their food too fast and throw it up immediately afterward. The cat wheezing sound is a distinct hack, hack, HACKING noise followed by my cats arching their backs, opening their jaws wide and puking. The results aren’t pretty and it sounds painful!

Hacking up a hairball is a similar sound. I can hear that something is about to come up. But sometimes, when Gabby wheezes, it just sounds like he’s having the same coughing or sneezing fit that I get when I breathe in something I’m allergic to. These attacks usually last a few seconds to a minute and he makes distinct snorting / wheezing noises. Sometimes, he hunches his shoulders and strains his neck out as if to elongate his air pipes in an attempt to breathe better.

What is the difference between cat wheezing and coughing up a hairball?

Unfortunately, the difference between a cat wheezing and a cat coughing up a hairball can be hard to tell, but if you don’t notice anything coming up, it’s probably wheezing. “A cat cough or wheeze sounds very similar to a cat trying to hack up a hairball,” says Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “In fact, they can often look very similar but most of the time with coughing, nothing comes up.”

Why causes cat wheezing?

A few different factors can be at play when it comes to cat wheezing. “Coughing and wheezing in cats is most commonly associated with respiratory allergies or asthma,” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Wheezing can also happen with benign growths called polyps that occur in the sinuses or throat. Occasionally, wheezing can happen with foreign bodies trapped within the respiratory tract.”

Sometimes, cat wheezing is a symptom of serious cat diseases. “Heartworms and parasites, such as lungworms, can cause wheezing,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Pneumonia can be a cause of coughing. Depending on the location of the growth, cancer can also cause wheezing. Heart failure uncommonly causes coughing or wheezing in cats (it’s more common in dogs), but it can happen.”

Does cat wheezing always mean a trip to the vet?

If you’ve ruled out hairballs, cat wheezing does warrant a trip to the vet. (And even some hairball situations mean a trip to the vet!). “It is very important to have your cat examined by a veterinarian to determine the cause of the wheezing,” Dr. Gibbons advises.

Since your cat is probably not continually wheezing (if he is, it’s an emergency — please see below and get him to a vet ASAP), try to capture your cat wheezing on video. “It can be helpful to record an episode of wheezing to help your vet determine the underlying cause,” says Dr. Anna Larson, DVM, at Spot On Veterinary Hospital & Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. “Radiographs (X-rays) and lab work may be necessary for a diagnosis in many cases.”

A cat coughing up a hairball.
Is your cat wheezing, coughing up a hairball or in need of an emergency vet visit? Photography by Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.

Is cat wheezing an emergency?

Sometimes, cat wheezing means getting your kitty to a vet ASAP. “Wheezing is an emergency when a cat is gasping for air and unable to breathe,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Most cats return to normal respiratory function after a few coughs. If the coughing is not stopping within one minute or it looks like your cat cannot breathe, he or she should be brought to a veterinarian immediately.”

How do you treat cat wheezing?  

Treatments for cat wheezing depend on the cause. Kitties may be sent home with either short- or long-term treatments. And, just like human asthmatics, kitties who are wheezing because of asthma may get inhalers, too.

“Depending on the underlying cause of your cat’s wheezing, your veterinarian will determine the appropriate treatment, if necessary,” Dr. Larson says. “This may be a steroid or inhaler for asthma, antibiotics for a bacterial infection or anti-viral supplements for a respiratory virus. Some of these disease processes require long-term treatment and some will resolve with a single course of therapy, or simply the tincture of time. You should always follow your trusted veterinarian’s instructions on monitoring and treating your cat’s wheezing, as any breathing changes can be very serious.”

Can you prevent cat wheezing before it happens?

If your cat’s wheezing is caused by asthma, Dr. Gibbons says you can take steps to reduce allergens and irritants in your living space by introducing HEPA filters and frequently dusting and cleaning. “Switching to a dust-free litter can also reduce episodes of coughing and wheezing for some cats,” Dr. Gibbons advises.

Is your cat wheezing — or coughing?

Cat wheezing and cat coughing are similar. “Wheezing can be any noise from the respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs),” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Coughing is more specific to the lungs and more commonly associated with asthma (allergic bronchitis) and less commonly with heartworm, lungworm, tumors in the lungs and, rarely, heart disease.”

A cat who is coughing, or a cat who is wheezing and coughing, should also see a vet.

What about cats who make snorting noises or huffs?

Gabby makes another strange noise that my other cat, Merritt, does not. This noise doesn’t sound the same as that painful cat wheezing, but more of an annoyed snort. We’ve dubbed this the “hufflepuff” (though I’m not sure Gabby would be sorted into that Harry Potter house), since it sounds like a short huff or puff of air coming out of his nose. It’s an annoyed, grumpy “hrumph” sort of noise that makes Gabby sound like an old-timey aristocrat who noticed an uninvited street urchin at his fancy dinner party. But, usually, he just makes this noise when I pick him up after I’ve caught him exploring our unfinished basement again.

That being said, you should still pay attention to a cat who’s huffing, puffing, coughing, snorting — or making any sort of strange noise. “Snorting can be a sound of displeasure, but can also be associated with irritation to the nose and throat,” Dr. Gibbons says. As with most things, you know best when your cat is being a curmudgeon and when a serious health issue might be at play. And when in doubt, see a vet!

Top photograph: ©Анатолий Тушенцов | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

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35 thoughts on “Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet?”

  1. Catherine Strausser

    Please consider moving your meezer to inhaled steroids. Our asthma kitty seemed to do much better with it and there is less side effect worry. Our kitty tolerated the aerokat inhaler used to administer the steroids much better than the oral.

  2. Did you ever find out what it was? My cat does the same thing sometimes, but no other signs that he is unwell and my vet was not concerned.

  3. I had 4 ferals. They now live indoors. It was a long journey. The “trap with food” DID work for us when they were still young & very hungry. We borrowed one from our vet. Food in one end with a pressure plate. I guess that’s what you’ve tried already though. You could also try a few drops of Valerian herb tincture (very attractive to cats) in a trap, or some “Pet Remedy” which is a proprietary spray/product for calming anxious animals which works well/quickly. We couldn’t touch ours either for months/years. BUT when feeding them , there’s a short window straight after they get their heads down, when you can grab one. Have house door open, cage ready, but out of sight. Grab the poorly kitty as soon as he starts feeding & CALMLY carry him into house, talk soothingly in you usual “all is well”, calm voice. SHUT DOOR BEFORE you let him go. Often they’re so surprised they don’t react straight away. You might want to use protective gloves (leather work gloves/marigolds etc) Hold him tight, close to your body, hold his back legs together if you can. DO NOT LET GO until you’re in with door shut. If you can, get someone to come & help you with the cage..one puts him in, the other ready to close the door. Use “Pet Remedy” or valerian in usual way, to calm them. Do not use valerian tincture directly on him as it may contain alcohol. Call the vet. We did this with our wildest one when he had an abcess on his leg. Your cat sounds like he needs a vet ASAP. Don’t think any home remedies would really help. Hope you can catch him or have got him treated already. Sorry, only saw your msg today. All, the best.

  4. I feed three feral cats. One has begun to make a death breathing sound like my mom did when she died. They will not let me touch them. I put a cage outside to catch him but none of them fell for that. I did have a raccoon one day! It breaks my heart. Any suggestion on a home remedy?

  5. Thanks so much for posting this.

    We have a 12-year old Siamese doing the same exact thing as this video. We had the office visit ($51.25) and a chest x-ray ($129.50) We got the radiologist report (~$130) today. It sounds like we are going to start treating this as if it is a lungworm. I will try to check in on progress and ongoing cost here or on my blog.

    Just lost our Maine Coon to oral squamous cell carcinomas. It was pretty awful so we want to get ahead of this issue.

    Good luck everyone!

    Max

    1. Hey Max! Any update on how your treatment went for your Siamese? We’re dealing with the same thing with our 10-year-old Siamese as well. Blood work showed high calcemic levels, waiting on x-ray results, but wanting to hear your story as well. Thanks!

  6. My cat was just diagnosed with asthma. He is on steroids and a bronchodilator. I only hear him wheeze when he is purring and it resolves quickly. I have taken him to the emergency hospital several times and he is always ok.

  7. Cat sneezing frequently and when she does it usually lasts a long minute or two, sometimes it seems she’s having a difficult time breathing throughout the duration, though it usually seems to take care of itself and goes away after a bit, but it can be a tough and tense observation in the process. Does it warrant a trip to the vet to rule out potential feline lukemia and potential other respiratory complications, illness and troubles?

  8. Pingback: Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? – Petcobestfood.com

  9. I have a six month old Tabby Kitten I thought was wheezing. Of course I panic because I did not know what was going on. It seemed she was causing it herself by drinking residual dripping water from various faucets in the house. I just gently hold her nose for a second and it clears up so she can go back to drinking the water again. She reminds me of another kitty I had who turned on the water very low and sit in the bathroom sink to stay cool. Kitty’s are so strange.

    1. I have an almost 19 y/o boy who makes a weird coughing/wheezing sound. This article caught my eye because of what he’s been experiencing. The wheezing has been going on for about a year, and he has his doctors (cardiologist, oncologist, and primary vet) say that it’s most likely an upper respiratory issue. He’s 19, so yes, things are bound to pop up. What I’ve been noticing when these occurrences happen are weather changes or more particulates in the air, so allergens make him sneezy/coughy. We have a HEPA filter in our home that helps. And he also hasn’t had respiratory distress. Just make sure you take your fur baby to the vet if you notice ANYTHING abnormal!

    2. My 6 month old kitten has been coughing/wheezing and she loves drinking water from the faucets in the bathroom and kitchen. Thank you for posting this comment, it’s helped me and my kids to not panic and know how to help her when she’s having one of these episodes. Kitties are so naughty and unique ????

  10. Pingback: Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? – Growing Social

  11. Pingback: Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? – 4Pets

    1. My cat and I were simply cuddling. She just woke up and started frantically wheezing, it scared me so much and I don’t know what to do.

      She’s purring up against me now, and we’re cuddlinf again. But I’m still extremely scared.

  12. I have an overweight Siamese mixed cat going on 12 years. He wheezes when he is sleeping soundly. Otherwise he seems healthy. Bright eyes. Moves like an old person.Eats both wet and dry food. Upchucks often, but not sure whether he eats too much or too often. Loves treats, and knows how to beg for them.

  13. One night I thought my husband was snoring as usual as he slept. I woke him up. It was not my husband, it was my siamese cat.
    Sadly after much testing and sadly it was large cell nasal carcinoma.
    We opted to try and save our precious boy and went the whole nine yards.
    We did stereotactic radiation which upon looking back should have been two treatments, not one, as they burnt his nasal turbines, followed by six months of chemo. He came thru it all. In a checkup too soon, and with his defenses down to zero , his city vet opted to scan his liver and though nothing was found, he was too long under anesthesia, an extra few minutes can cause a life to a cat in this condition. He caught an infection and could not fight it off. We also found out he was the first cat ever treated for this condition with sr and were told this later. Had we known we would have opted to take him to a more experienced institution and not had him be their first victim. We were never told this prior. He died as a result of the infection. This was at a large animal medical center in. Ny and always felt angered at their not being up front in the first place. While it cost us a fortune, we lost a precious life we would have done anything to save. I always felt their lack of a track record which we were never advised afbout contributed greatly to his death. He was cancer free following his chemo treatments which were done elsewhere.

    1. Derrick Thomas Lewis

      Ah, so heartbreaking! We lost our almost 13 yr. old queen on Jan.2 ’20. Of our several cats, she was the matriarch, the ‘queen-pin’, the indispensible one. We never allowed ourselves to even speculate about her non-existence. Last Christmas she was fine; one week later she was dead. We rushed her to hospital a few days beforehand, got some pain killers + amoxicillin, but our efforts were vain. We interred her at a local botanical garden. Actually placing her in her grave shattered me worse than anything ever has. I understand why, in Pharaonic Egypt, it was a capital crime to slay a cat. Grief is the price we pay for love.

  14. Jeanne Lovizio

    My cat was just diagnosed with asthma. He is on steroids and a bronchodilator. I only hear him wheeze when he is purring and it resolves quickly. I have taken him to the emergency hospital several times and he is always ok. The poor thing is so traumatized from all these trips to the vet. He sees his regular vet in 2 days and I will get her advice on what I should do.

  15. My cat does the weezing (just like in the video) but only in the summer time. Every Summer it starts up and stops in the late fall and winter. Very just gave antibiotics but didn’t help. Was thinking might do with the humidity but what do I know. Seems a inhaler and steroids might be something to try. Are vet seems to be out of ideas.

  16. Terry V Henderson

    My cat has asthma. Wheezzes about every couple weeks but recovers and is good for a while. Doc said we may need to get steroids to help but has not gotten to bad to do that yet.

  17. MADONNA MARYA BAILEY

    I have two cats. Sedgewick Oliver is a chocolate point Siamese and phoebe le bebe is a all white domestic short hair with pink paws and markings. He is 11 and she is 9.
    Her first trip to the vet was 6 months ago for the wheezing and they gave e capsules to break into her food..She will just walk away.. wont eat at all…She doesn’t puke at all never has because she gets petromalt daily which she loves. I don’t know what to do anymore about the wheezing ….been back to the vet 3x now…any suggestions They are both like my kids..

  18. My 4 year-old, silver Egyptian Mau makes almost constant very soft wheezing, whistling or snoring sounds. They are fairly quiet although they are a little more pronounced just after active play (when he’s breathing a bit harder. -My spouse often makes similar noises when sleeping). I’ve had him to the vet who didn’t notice anything in the breathing but was willing to do “diagnostic tests”. My cat does not appear in any distress and none of his other behavior has changed. Should I be concerned and invest in the testing?

    1. Hi Jim —

      We suggest going with a professional medical opinion on this one. Best of luck and hope your kitty feels better!

  19. Pingback: Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? | mycatfirst.com

  20. My 12 year old cat doesn’t wheeze. I have a different question if you can please help me with. She all of a sudden stopped eating her wet food no matter what kind I put out for her. She is still eating the dry food and “CRUNCHES’. Any suggestions? I already tried that Hills cat food that is supposed to get her back to wet food again. It is $2.40 for a small can . . . And she just looked at it and walked away. $2.40 down the drain!

    1. Hi Ronald — Thanks for reaching out! We would contact your vet for the best course of action. Best of luck to you and your kitty!

    2. Cats can be finicky about food. Cost of food doesn’t matter to your cat. I’ve had cats refuse very expensive food intended to fix problems (like kidney issues, or hairballs). So long as your cat is eating dry food and drinking water, she is fine. Relax. Complete refusal to eat is another matter.

    3. I also had a cat that did that also. It turned out to be a tooth and gum problem. The crunchy food didn’t “stick” to his teeth like the wet food I suppose. 4 teeth pulled and gums lasered and problem was solved

  21. Pingback: Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? – user's Blog!

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