Breathing diseases

My Cat Is Coughing and Gagging

María Besteiros
By María Besteiros, Expert veterinary assistant and canine/feline hairdresser.. September 1, 2021
My Cat Is Coughing and Gagging

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Although they present as similar symptoms, coughing and gagging in cats are not the same. Coughing is a sharp sudden expulsion of air form the lungs, whereas gagging is more of a choking sound. However, when the two present at the same time, it can help us to better determine the underlying cause. Some of these are short acute problems which will pass promptly. Others are symptoms of a pathology which may require a prolonged treatment.

At AnimalWised, we look at the possible reasons why my cat is coughing and gagging. We discover the most common causes and see what treatment options are available. Since some of these causes can be severe, we must stress the importance of going to a veterinarian for diagnosis.

You may also be interested in: My Dog Has a Dry Cough and Gags
  1. Difference between coughing and gagging in cats
  2. Upper respiratory tract infections
  3. Feline asthmatic syndrome
  4. Gastrointestinal problems

Difference between coughing and gagging in cats

It is important we know whether a cat is coughing or gagging as one is more serious than the other. When a cat is coughing, it will be a symptom of a disease or medical problem. It might be a serious problem which requires immediate treatment or may be a minor acute issue which requires management of symptoms. Coughing is used to try to remove fluids, foreign objects or even minute particles from the airways. The cough itself is a forced projection of air which helps dislodge these substances.

Gagging in cats is a noise which is characteristic of choking or retching. While it too is a symptom of another problem, it is often something much more immediate. Retching can be part of the gag reflex because something is touching the back of the cat's throat. However, it usually means that something is obstructing the airway rather than just agitating it. If an airway is obstructed, the cat can asphyxiate and die in a relatively short period of time.

Since they are related, there are some reasons why a cat will be coughing and gagging at the same time. We look at these causes in more detail below:

Upper respiratory tract infections

Upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) in cats are relatively common. The term refers to a group of infections which can affect the upper respiratory system, either completely or in part. Thanks to the development and utilization of vaccination programs, their incidence is decreasing. The causative agents of these infections are usually viral, bacterial or fungal. They cause various symptoms, but coughing and gagging are common.

Some of the most common causes of coughing and gagging cats are due to feline rhinotracheitis virus, feline calicivirus and Chlamydia infections. URIs in cats are commonly highly contagious and are transmitted between cats via secretions. Often this is in the form of mucus or purulent discharge. When such secretions are expelled they can cause gagging or agitation leading to coughing. Since cats groom each other, bacteria and viruses can spread easily.

Young kittens are more likely to develop a URI, as are those with feline leukemia virus or any reason for immunodeficiency. Cats going through stressful situations can have lower defences against infections and upper respiratory tract infections can spread easily through animal shelters or places where cats live in large groups. Infections from various causative agents can affect a cat at the same time, such as when a viral infection leads to a secondary bacterial infection.

Along with coughing and gaging, upper respiratory tract infections in cats can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Nasal and eye discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Disinterest in food and often unable to smell it
  • Recurrent conjunctivitis that can be caused by Chlamydia bacteria
  • Mouth ulcers and stomatitis, related to calicivirus
  • Corneal Ulcers related to herpesvirus
  • Nasal and eye discharge

When cats have a URI and start coughing and gagging, they will often stick their tongue out as they retch. This is because the cat is trying to improve their breathing. By stretching out their neck, they can open up their airways and are better able to expel discharge. This characteristic actions changes the posture of their whole body and can look dramatic.

The symptomatology of these problems is usually clear enough for the veterinarian to diagnose a URI. They will likely test for immunodeficiency problems such as leukemia virus. With viral infections, there is no direct treatment. Treatment will involve symptom management and support the animal as their body fights the infection.

When the problem is bacterial, as either a primary or secondary infection, antibiotics may be administered to kill the bacteria. Samples may need to be taken to confirm the type of bacterium present. If the URI has progressed, the cat may need restorative treatments such as fluid therapy and their hygiene may need to be maintained by their guardians. Early detection and intervention is important for a good prognosis. Even when the cat recovers, viruses can remain dormant and induce symptoms when their immune system is again compromised.

For related problems, take a look at our article on why your cat has a runny nose and is sneezing.

My Cat Is Coughing and Gagging - Upper respiratory tract infections

Feline asthmatic syndrome

Feline asthmatic syndrome, commonly known as asthma in cats, often causes the cat to apear to cough and gag at the same time. When cats with asthma make the choking noises, it is due to bronchoconstriction which restricts their breathing. It is one type of severe respiratory problems which affect around 1% of the total domestic cat population. Symptoms of asthmatic syndrome include:

  • Cough of variable severity and frequency
  • Breathing difficulties (dyspnea)
  • Occasionally, fever, lethargy and anorexia

When we see weight loss or fever, it is usually to a secondary bacterial infection or because the coughing makes it difficult to ingest food. Diagnosis of asthma in cats can be made by a veterinarian. Observing symptoms may be sufficient as there are not many diseases which cause dyspnea and coughing in cats at the same time. Treatment will depend on the severity and frequency of the symptoms and, as always, should be prescribed by the veterinarian.

Gastrointestinal problems

Sometimes intense coughing spells can be due to problems related to their gastrointestinal system. This is especially the case when it is succeeded by vomiting. Digestive problems which can lead to coughing and gagging include:

  • Hairballs: also known as trichobezoars, hairballs in cats are caused by the accumulation of hair when grooming themselves. Longhaired cats are more prone to this problem and it can be a result of the cat overgrooming themselves. When the hair collects in their gastrointestinal system, the cat will try to expel them by coughing and gagging. They can be aided with the help of malt paste, but severe obstructions will require veterinary consultation.
  • Foreign objects: when the cat ingests something they shouldn't, it can get stuck in their throat and be a choking hazard. Unless the cat is in immediate danger, we should take them to a veterinarian to ensure they are handled by a professional. If the object is sharp, it is possible we can do more damage trying to retrieve it.
  • Gastrointestinal disease: if the cat has a disease which affects their digestive system, they can start to make coughing and gagging noises because they are trying to bring something up. This is the case with gastritis as increased gastric acid can rise to the back of the throat and cause gagging.

Regardless of the reason why your cat is coughing and gagging, it is important you take them to a veterinarian. As you can see, the causes are varied and correct diagnosis is essential to ensure their well-being.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to My Cat Is Coughing and Gagging, we recommend you visit our Breathing diseases category.

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My Cat Is Coughing and Gagging