Sometimes we notice our cats coughing
and sneezing. Is
it something to worry about? Like humans, there could be many causes of
coughing and sneezing in a cat. The coughing and sneezing may be due to
environmental irritants, such as dust or allergens. Perhaps the cat’s
litter is too dusty, or he/she may be allergic to something in the home or environment. Aerosol
air fresheners or disinfectants may also irritate a cat’s throat if the
smell is too strong or if the cat walks on wet, freshly sprayed surfaces and
subsequently licks his/her paws. Check the litter and try to reduce any
strong chemical scents in the air. Remember that a cat’s sense of
smell is many times more sensitive than a human’s.
Most cat owners are aware of their pet’s normal daily
behavior and activity level. However, how many are aware of their cat’s
normal breathing pattern? A cat’s normal respiratory rate or breathing
pattern may be difficult to assess, because of how well a cat can compensate
and ‘hide’ disease. An owner may not even realize that their
cat is having respiratory difficulties for several days. The laid-back
lifestyle or the long haired coats of some cats make it difficult for
some owners to assess their cat’s breathing pattern.
Do cats get colds like humans do?
Yes, cats can get upper respiratory infections or what we call
the common cold or flu. However, you cannot pass a human cold to your
cat and vice versa. If your cat has any of the following symptoms for
more than a day or two he/she probably has an upper respiratory infection:
- Runny nose
- Discharge from the nose or mouth
- Respiratory problems
- Oral ulcers
- Conjunctivitis (discharge from the eye)
- an abnormal or hoarse meow or lack of
If a cat is occasionally coughing or sneezing, but has no
other signs of infection such as watery eyes, discharge from the nose or mouth,
wheezing, lethargy, weakness, reduced appetite, or depression, you may monitor
the cat for a few days to see if it improves on its own. If the coughing
persists for longer than a few days, or if the condition worsens, it is best
to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible.
What causes upper respiratory infections?
The cause of feline respiratory infections is usually viral.
These infections are most commonly associated
with two viruses: feline herpes virus, also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis,
and feline calicivirus. The disease is considered mild if the
cat is sneezing with the occasional nasal discharge. However, if the cat
is showing open-mouthed breathing, weakness or severe coughing, this is
considered severe respiratory distress and veterinary attention should
be sought as soon as possible.
Are there any other causes of upper respiratory infections?
are a wide range of possible causes for respiratory distress in cats:
- Tracheal obstructions - balls, strings, or other foreign
objects may get stuck in a cat’s trachea, causing coughing and/or
- Parasites - such as lungworm cause
coughing and lethargy, although they are less common in the cat compared
to other species.
- Asthma - similar to humans, severe asthmatic
attacks will cause breathing problems.
- Heart disease - may cause pleural effusion (fluid accumulation
around the lungs), which makes it hard for the lungs to inflate.
emboli (blood clot in the lungs) - can cause inflammation in the lungs
and subsequently compromise lung function.
- Allergies - allergy induced pneumonitis
may cause a chronic cough.
- Viral infections, such as feline infectious peritonitis
(FIP) may cause fluid build-up around the lungs due to leakage from blood
vessels. Viral diseases may compromise the cat’s immune system
and make them more susceptible to bacterial infection.
- Bacterial or fungal invasion of the lungs may cause pneumonia.
- Severe anemia (low red blood cell count) may also contribute
to breathing difficulties.
- Cancer - tumors
may occur at any location in the respiratory tract, including the nose,
mouth, larynx, trachea, and lungs. Clinical signs with cancer will
- Trauma - injuries, such as being hit by a car
or falling, can result in a condition called pneumothorax (air in the
thorax) which collapses the lungs and makes breathing difficult.
The list of possible causes for coughing and respiratory
distress can be overwhelming; therefore it is best to let your veterinarian
help narrow down the possibilities and pinpoint the exact cause.
How is a respiratory infection diagnosed?
Often the first diagnostic instrument
that a veterinarian will use is a stethoscope. He/she will listen for
abnormal lung sounds (such as fluid in the lungs), or abnormal heart sounds
(indicating possible heart disease). The next step will be to get x-rays
of the cat’s
chest. The veterinarian will evaluate
the chest for pneumonia, fluid accumulation, heart abnormalities, and
any evidence of foreign bodies (such as an object stuck in the trachea),
diaphragmatic hernias, or other signs of trauma.
the cat is in clinic, the cat may be placed into a tank where it can
receive oxygen to facilitate better breathing because the cat is already
having difficulty breathing and most cats would be stressed coming into
the clinic. If the veterinarian cannot make a clear diagnosis at this
point, further diagnostics (such as an ultrasound) may be recommended depending
on the findings from the x-rays.
If fluid is found within the chest, the veterinarian will
collect a sample of the fluid for analysis. The fluid will be analyzed
for color, opacity, protein levels and cellular content. The type of
fluid will give an indication of the underlying cause of the disease, such
as heart failure, tumors, infection, or leakage of chyle into the thorax.
Computed tomography (CT) scans may also be available as
a diagnostic tool. It
can be used in instances where ultrasound cannot provide a diagnosis,
as CT technology is not impaired by air or fluid. For example, CT scans
can help identify lung tumors which can be removed surgically.
If a cat is in respiratory distress due to fluid in the lungs,
removing some of that fluid will provide immediate relief. The veterinarian will
use a chest tap and/or chest drain. Once the cat has been stabilized, other
treatments can be initiated to address the underlying problem.
The cat’s respiratory system is very delicate, and if diseased, can quickly
progress to a state of emergency. Therefore, it is important to observe
your cat’s normal respiratory patterns so you can recognize abnormalities
before it becomes too serious.
Are there any precautionary measures to prevent future infections?
- Keep your cat indoors and away from other sick animals.
- Keep your pet in a clean environment which includes clean
food and water bowls and a clean environment.
- Keep your home above 70 degrees if possible.
- If your cat gets wet, dry him off or make sure he stays
warm while he dries off.
- Talk to your vet about yearly vaccinations to ward off