Cat Coughing and Gagging: What Does it Mean?

Does your cat coughing and gagging disturb you? When your cat does these, it becomes agitated; others arch their back, open their jaw wide, and then might vomit or retch. The outcome is frequently pretty nasty and painful for your pet.

There are a lot of causes of coughing and gagging, and the reason is not solely about a hairball. These might be quite normal for others most especially if the cat ate too fast or if it over-groomed its fur. Doing these once is okay. But what if your cat does them on a daily basis or several times in a row?

Here’s our list of possible causes why your cat keeps coughing and gagging and how you can prevent these from occurring.

Coughing and Gagging in Cats

Coughing in cats is a protective reflex meant to rid the respiratory tract of items such as foreign particles, mucus, irritants, and microbes. This is driven by an irritation or inflammation in the bronchi or trachea which might be related to various mild to severe conditions.

Similarly, a cat gagging is reflexively removing irritants from its larynx. It is usually confused with retching. Now, let’s look at these conditions’ underlying causes:


The most natural source of cat coughing and gagging is when it is regurgitating a hairball. When your cat ingests loose fur while grooming, the outcome is wet and messy clumps of a hairball. These are ordinarily wrapped in bile and other stomach fluids.

While some of the hair will pass, the keratin present in your pet’s fur is inedible. This is mainly the reason why the hair is a sodden clump inside your cat’s stomach.

It only takes a few seconds to regurgitate a hairball. So, if your pet is still coughing and gagging on a daily basis then, this may be an indication of a different condition.

To help your precious cats avoid developing hairballs, establish a daily routine of combing their fur. On a weekly basis, make sure to vacuum or sweep fur from the floor, couch, bedding, etc. Don’t forget also to always give your cats fresh, clean water. If all of these tips fail, then you can purchase a hairball solution for your cat which is oily and helps the hairball pass.

Sick cat coughing and gagging

2. Hairball obstruction

In other cases, some hairballs may be awfully large for your feline’s digestive tract. The piece can get blocked and this may be a serious life-threatening case for your pet. A cat’s digestive system is structured to handle these clumps of loose furs, however, only to a certain size.

Although hairballs are prevalent in long-haired breed cats such as Persians, Himalayans, and Maine Coons, short-haired cats also suffer from this problem. That is why it is critical to brush your feline’s fur routinely to keep hairballs to a minimum.

Here are key symptoms to look out for to know when your feline is suffering from hairball obstruction:

  • Suffers from loss of appetite after continuous hairball episodes.
  • You still hear troubled cat choking sound but no hairball comes out.
  • Vomiting with no recent passing of stools.

If you notice your cat exhibiting these signs, schedule a visit to your vet as soon as possible.

3. Asthma

You may notice in separate situations that your cat is coughing and trying to hack a hairball, however, nothing comes out. The sound you hear is called wheezing. You might be wondering, “Why is my cat wheezing?

When coughing is coupled with wheezing, it could be bronchial issue and ordinarily related to respiratory allergies or asthma. Cats that are mostly outdoors typically get these. Common elements that trigger asthma are the following:

  • Pollen
  • Mould
  • Cat litter dust
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Perfume
  • Obesity
  • Stress

If you suspect your cat has asthma, bring in your pet for a check-up. This type of condition worsens immediately and your pet may not be able to breathe at all. Therefore, you must contact your vet immediately if it appears your cat is in distress. Unfortunately, given that there is no treatment for asthma, you can manage it with proper care routine.

You can also reduce cat asthma symptoms by improving your feline’s living condition. Just follow these tips to get you started:

  • Keep off perfumes, sanitizers, and air fresheners from your kitty.
  • Maintain a routine check-up for your cat, which includes checking for parasites.
  • Minimize environmental stress, including loud noises.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke.

4. Worms

There are several types of worms and while indoor cats do catch worms, outdoor cats are the most prone to catching these. While outdoors, these felines hunt and eat rodents plus routinely walk on soil populated with other animal’s excrements.

Furthermore, pets who don’t receive routine check-ups are at most risk for developing this condition.

Let’s look at the following prevalent types of worms:

  • Roundworms

These are commonly spaghetti-like parasites. An adult roundworm is up to four inches long. How does a cat get infected with it? For nursing kittens, they get contaminated with an infected mother’s milk, while an adult cat can get it by consuming infected rodents or infected excrements.

  • Tapeworms

These are long and flat parasites. They range from four to twenty-eight inches in length. When a cat is infested with tapeworms, it induces vomiting or weight loss. Felines acquire these parasites by consuming an intermediate host such as an infected flea or rodent.

  • Hookworms

Take note that while hookworms infect cats, they are most common in dogs. These types of parasites are smaller than roundworms. They are less than an inch long and stay mainly in the small intestine.

Since hookworms feed on animal’s blood, they can result in life-threatening anemia, particularly in kittens.

A feline can get contaminated with these parasites through ingestion or skin contact.

If you see the following symptoms in your kitty, it might be infected with these irritating parasites. It is best to have your precious feline examined by a vet for further tests.

  • Coughing
  • Blood in feces
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Presence of worms in stool
  • Worm segments found near cat’s anus
  • Diarrhea

To prevent your cat from getting worms, observe the following steps:

  • Establish good hygiene and always wear hand gloves when changing cat litter or handling feces. Don’t forget to always dispose your pet’s stool.
  • Ensure that the home, yard, and pets are pest-free.
  • Maintain your cat indoors to ward off exposure to infected cats, rodents, fleas, and excrements.

5. Heart disease

Cats can be prone to getting heart disease. There are several types of heart disease a cat can get:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – this is when the heart muscle becomes thicker than needed and also less elastic. This makes contracting to pump much more difficult.
  • Valve insufficiencies – there are four valves in the heart, and if one is damaged or leaky, there is usually some backflow of blood when the heart beats. Therefore, it must beat harder to pump the same volume of blood as a normal heart.
  • Ventricular septal defect – this is when there is a hole in the middle of the heart between the left- and right-hand side. Like the valve insufficiencies, this will cause a backflow of blood and therefore require the heart to pump harder.

Problems with the heart will mean it must work harder for the body to receive the amount of blood it needs. As it pumps harder, the heart muscles grow. This in turn causes an enlargement of the heart. When the heart becomes very large, it presses on the bronchial bifurcation, which is the part where the bronchi split in the lungs. This is an area with lots of cough receptors, and therefore the cat will cough regularly.

Your vet will need to listen to the heart, and potentially do some diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or cardiac ultrasonography, to get to the bottom of it.

6. Pharyngitis/Laryngitis

The pharynx is the area at the top of the throat, in front of the larynx which is the top of the windpipe. Inflammation of these areas is called pharyngitis and laryngitis. If there is swelling, it can cause coughing, much like when we get a tickly or sore throat.

The cause of these can be many, however, the most common cause is a viral infection. Other potential culprits are bacterial infections, polyps, tumors, or lodged foreign bodies.

You might see signs other than coughing such as difficulty swallowing, or continuous swallowing, and a change in voice. Your veterinarian will be able to assess this area with a laryngoscope, which is a torch on the end of a metal projection that presses down the tongue. The treatment will vary widely, depending on what your vet finds.

It may be easy to blame hairballs when your feline starts coughing. As we have pointed out, it is not always the culprit.

Always consult your vet when in doubt!

Dr. Jo Hardy(Jo de Klerk) is a veterinarian from the United Kingdom and is an avid writer/speaker alongside her clinical work.

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