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Causes of Coughing in Cats

Coughing is a reflex initiated by an irritant in the bronchial tubes. It can be caused by a respiratory infection; inhaled irritants such as smoke and chemicals; foreign objects such as grass seeds, dust and food particles; pressure from a tight collar; or growths arising in the bronchial tubes. Some coughs are triggered by an allergic reaction. The type of cough often suggests the location and probable cause:

  • A cough accompanied by sneezing and watery red eyes suggests feline viral respiratory disease complex.
  • A deep, paroxysmal cough with the cat’s neck extended and the production of phlegm suggests chronic bronchitis.
  • A sudden coughing attack accompanied by wheezing and difficulty breathing suggests feline asthma.
  • Sporadic coughing with weight loss, listlessness, and depressed appetite is seen in cats with heartworms, lungworms, and fungal diseases.
  • Spasms of coughing that occur after exercise suggest acute bronchitis.
  • Some cardiac problems, including cardiomyopathy, will cause a cat to cough.

Coughs are self-perpetuating. Coughing irritates the bronchial tubes, dries out the mucous lining, and lowers resistance to infection-leading to further coughing.

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The diagnostic workup of a cat with a chronic cough includes a chest X-ray and transtracheal washings. These washings are obtained by placing a sterile tube into the trachea with the cat under light anesthesia. Microscopic examination of recovered cells leads to a specific diagnosis.

Bronchoscopy is an excellent method of evaluating bronchial tube disease. A fiber-optic instrument is passed into the trachea, again with the cat under anesthesia. The bronchial tubes can be viewed directly, biopsies taken, and phlegm removed via bronchial lavage for microscopic exam and culture and sensitivity testing.

Treatment: Coughs accompanied by fever, difficulty breathing, discharge from the eyes and nose, or other signs of a serious illness should be treated by a veterinarian. Also, if your cat’s appetite is off and she is coughing, she should be taken in for a veterinary exam.

It is important to identify and correct contributing problems. Air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, aerosol insecticides, house dust, and perfumes should be eliminated from the atmosphere. HEPA filters can assist in this effort. Any nose, throat, lung, or heart disorders should be treated.

Only minor coughs of brief duration should be treated at home. A variety of cough suppressants used for children are available at drugstores to treat mild coughs. However, medications containing acetaminophen (Tylenol), codeine, and other narcotics are toxic to cats and must never be used. Plain Robitussin is an example of a safe and effective cough preparation for cats. It contains an expectorant called guaifenesen that does not suppress the cough reflex but liquefies mucus secretions so they can be coughed free. Robitussin-DM contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan-the only cough suppressant that is safe for cats. These medications are not approved for use in cats and should not be used without consulting your veterinarian. In fact, no medication, even an over-the-counter one for children, should be given to your cat without first consulting your veterinarian.

Although cough suppressants decrease the frequency and severity of the cough, they do not treat the disease or condition causing it. Their overuse may delay a proper diagnosis and treatment. Cough suppressants (but not expectorants) should be avoided when phlegm is being brought up or swallowed. These coughs are clearing unwanted material from the airway.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook"

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