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?
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.