Why Is My Cat Wheezing? 9 Common Causes of Wheezing and Coughing

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Why Is My Cat Wheezing? 9 Common Causes of Wheezing and Coughing 1

Is your cat wheezing? What causes wheezing in cats? Many things can cause your cat to wheeze, sneeze, or cough. However, it may be a sign that it is time for your cat to go on a veterinary visit. 

Cat Wheezing: What is Wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched, sort of whistling sound that is made while breathing. It can occur when your cat is exhaling or inhaling.

Usually associated with difficulty in breathing, cats wheeze when an airway becomes narrow due to inflammation or an obstruction such as a foreign object. 

Wheezing can be similar to other sounds your cat may make. For this reason, it can be harder for some pet owners to tell if their cat is having a breathing problem or otherwise.

If your cat appears to be breathing through her open mouth, bring her to the vet right away as mouth-breathing means your cat is having trouble inhaling and exhaling through her nose.

What Causes Wheezing in Cats?

Is your cat wheezing or coughing? There could be many reasons why your cat is wheezing. Some causes are more common than others. Many of them also have similar symptoms. 

If your cat is wheezing, it could be a sign that there is a problem with the airways. Here are some of the common respiratory conditions that can cause wheezing in cats.

Common Causes of Wheezing in Cats

Feline Asthma

This condition causes the lungs and airways to be inflamed. This makes the airways narrow and the air that goes in and out of the narrow passages often makes a high-pitched whistling noise known as wheezing.

Cardiac Problems/ Congestive Heart Failure

Heart problems such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can cause fluid buildup in the lungs. This can cause a cat to retch, cough, or have trouble inhaling or exhaling.

Laryngitis

Laryngitis is the inflammation of the larynx or your cat’s voice box. This can be caused by a wide range of conditions or other diseases. 

Other signs of laryngitis are changes to your cat’s “voice”. Your cat's meow may sound fainter or different from how they usually sound. It can also make meowing painful for them.

Hairballs

A wheezing cat may be having hairball problems. Hairballs’ wheezing sounds are due to your cat coughing up hairballs trapped in its esophagus or stomach. This can happen as hairs can sometimes build up in the digestive tract when a cat grooms, especially in long-haired cats like the Maine Coon.

If such symptoms persist, take your cat to the vet immediately as severe hairball situations require medical assistance.

Cat Wheezing

Lung Disease 

Lung diseases such as pneumonia can cause a slight rattling sound or wheezing. According to PetMD, pneumonia causes a disruption in the intake and distribution of oxygen in the body due to inflammation and infectious material in the lungs. 

The inflammation and infectious material cause a physical barrier between the air in the lungs and the bloodstream/ blood vessels. 

Obesity

Excess weight gain can cause a wheezing sound as well as sleep apnea. Brachycephalic cats, or those with pushed-in faces such as Persians, are particularly prone to such breathing noises due to their already narrow airways.

Feline Upper Airway Infections

Feline upper respiratory or airway infections are common among cats, especially in kittens. Typically caused by viruses, these infections can quickly become serious when not properly treated right away. Signs may include your cat wheezing, sneezing, eye discharge, and runny nose.

Nasopharyngeal Polyps

Growths or tumors that may be present in the back of the throat can lead to respiratory noise such as continually wheezing. These growths or polyps are usually benign.

Parasites

Parasites such as heartworm and lungworm can cause enough damage to a cat’s lungs to cause breathing issues. Some of the symptoms of lungworm and heartworm-associated respiratory disease are retching, wheezing, coughing, sneezing, nose discharge, etc.

What Happens at the Vet?

Now that we know the possible causes of your cat’s wheezing, it’s time to figure out which one causes it. Your vet is the best expert to help you get your cat on the road to recovery.

To determine the underlying cause of your cat’s symptoms, the vet may order tests which will depend on the specifics of the symptoms. 

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Diagnostic Tests Commonly Used for Respiratory Issues

Chest X-rays

Your cat may need to be sedated to allow the vet or technician to take a clear x-ray image of the lungs, heart, or chest wall.

Blood Test

A blood test will reveal any infections or other conditions your cat may have, such as kidney issues. Blood tests are important as some treatments or procedures may require your cat’s health to be at a certain level before they could be safely done.

Bronchoscopy

Bronchoscopy is done to enable vets to see inside the cat’s airways to determine if there are any tumors, foreign bodies, parasites, inflammation, etc that could be present. Cats are put under general anesthesia for this procedure, and an endoscope or a tube with a camera at the end is used to look inside the airways.

The cat is given oxygen through an endotracheal tube to stabilize them. The endotracheal tube is then removed and the endoscope is inserted into the windpipe. The endoscope will be slowly lowered into the area that needs to be checked. Biopsy graspers may be used to take specimen samples for lab testing.

Airway Washes

Airway washes is a procedure that is done to collect fluid from the lower airways. The fluid contains cells from the cat’s airway lining. This fluid will then be analyzed at the lab to determine the cause of the respiratory symptoms or the severity of inflammation.

Treatments for Wheezing

The treatment that your vet would recommend would depend largely on the cause of the wheezing or cough. The severity of the health concern, your cat’s overall health, and medical history are also factors that vets consider before prescribing any type of treatment.

Below are some of the treatments commonly received by cats with respiratory problems. These treatments should not be done without the guidance of a veterinarian.

Steroid Medication

Steroids are often used as anti-inflammatory drugs, especially in cases of allergic reactions such as asthma attacks. These prescription drugs can be administered to cats through inhalers, injections, or oral tablets. 

A vet may prescribe a round of oral steroids to get reduce the inflammation before prescribing an inhaler. 

Bronchodilator

Bronchodilator meds are used to open narrowed airways to improve breathing for the cat. This allows more air to pass through the airways.

Environmental Changes

Anything in the cat’s environment that could be suspected of triggering asthma may need to be eliminated. However, it can be hard to pinpoint all of your cat’s triggers. 

Your vet will likely give you a list of things that may need to be removed from the areas your cat frequents. This could include certain types of litter, air fresheners, chemical cleaning agents, diffusers, etc.

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More About Feline Asthma, Heart Disease, and Upper Respiratory Infections

Feline Asthma

This condition is one of the most common causes of wheezing in cats. Characterized by inflamed lungs and airways, it is caused by inhaling allergens such as dust, pollen, dust mites, etc. It can range from mild, occasional asthma attacks to severe asthma that can be life-threatening.

PetMD lists the following symptoms to look out for if you suspect that your cat may have asthma:

Symptoms of Feline Asthma

  • Prolonged wheezing 
  • Coughing/ gagging
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Breathing that looks like it is coming from the belly instead of the chest

Cause of Feline Asthma

Cat asthma is caused by inhaling allergens. These allergens could come from dust, pollen, household chemicals, cigarette smoke, cat litter, mildew, scented candles, perfume, and many more. 

Getting exposed to an allergen your cat is particularly sensitive to can trigger an asthma attack.

What to Do if You Suspect That Your Cat Has Asthma

Cats’ wheezing is likely to be due to feline asthma. If you suspect that your cat has asthma, take her to the vet for a proper diagnosis.

The vets will order diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your cat’s wheezing. The tests will likely be bloodwork and/ or chest x-ray. Further tests like fecalysis may also be done to rule out parasites in the lungs.

Feline Asthma Treatment

Treating cat asthma is usually done with the help of anti-inflammatory medication. This is due to unavoidable allergens such as dust or pollen are some of the most common triggers. These allergens are extremely hard to eliminate from a cat’s environment. In such cases so the focus is on treating the inflammation to give the cat relief.

Medication can be in the form of an inhaler, oral meds, or injectibles.

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Cardiac Problems/ Congestive Heart Failure

According to West Park Animal Hospital, congenital heart conditions that develop over time such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can cause fluid to build up in the cat’s lungs. This can cause a cat to have trouble inhaling and exhaling.

Symptoms of Cardiac Problems

  • Labored/ heavy breathing 
  • Coughing
  • Retching
  • Wheezing sound
  • Poor appetite 
  • Weight loss 
  • Lethargy
  • Regularly elevated heart rate
  • Sudden hind leg paralysis 
  • Fainting/ collapse

Causes of Cardiac Problems/ Heart Disease

Cardiac problems can be congenital or acquired. Congenital heart disease is something that the cat is born with. This can be inherited by any kittens they may have.

Acquired heart problems can be caused by an injury or infection. It can also occur in older cats as a result of wear and tear on the heart.

What to Do if You Suspect That Your Cat Has Cardiac Problems

Take your cat to the vet immediately if you notice labored breathing as your cat is likely in severe distress. Heart failure can be diagnosed by vets through the use of ultrasound or electrocardiogram.

Treatment for Cardiac Problems/ Heart Disease

Treatment depends on the type of heart disease a cat has, as well as the severity of the condition. In the case of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, there is no cure as the damage to the structure of the heart itself is irreversible.

However, some heart conditions are only secondary to another illness that may be treatable. In such cases, once the primary illness is treated, the heart condition may also improve.

Depending on the type of illness, heart disease can be managed through medication, dietary therapy, taurine supplementation, and/ or surgical procedures.

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Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

According to the Animal Medical Center of Chicago, about 90% of all upper airway infections are caused by common viruses feline herpesvirus-1 and feline calicivirus. Feline herpesvirus is similar to the virus that causes people to have chicken pox and cold sores. However, feline herpesvirus is not transmissible to humans.

Feline respiratory infection can also be caused by a fungal or bacterial infection. If your cat goes on adventures outdoors, they have a higher chance of getting fungal lung infection compared to indoor cats. 

Symptoms of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

  • Sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing noise
  • Eye or mouth discharge
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Hoarse ‘voice’
  • Change in facial shape
  • Ulcers in the mouth or eyes

Causes of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Much like a human cold, feline upper respiratory infection is contagious. Your feline friend can get it by coming into contact with an infected cat or through sharing food/ food bowls with a sick cat.

Feline calicivirus can spread when two cats use the same litter box and one of them is infected. Human handling can also help spread the virus when a cat is touched or held by a human who has previously touched a sick cat.

Treatment of Feline Upper Respiratory Infections

Keeping cats indoors lowers their risk of contracting these types of infections. Kittens are also at a much higher risk as their immune systems are not yet fully developed. Vaccines can help protect cats from severe symptoms or even prevent them from getting sick.

If your cat is sick, the vet may ask about the cat’s vaccine history. Tests may also be done to determine the cause of the infection, whether it is viral, bacterial, fungal, or even a combination of pathogens.

Depending on the type and severity of the infection, the vet may prescribe antibiotics or other drugs to treat the infection.

Takeaway

If you have observed that your cat is wheezing, sneezing, or coughing, take her to the veterinarian immediately. Many cats are quite good at hiding discomfort, pain, or any illness they may be experiencing. Breathing changes or changes in how cats sound could be an indication of respiratory distress or even heart disease.

No matter what illness or health concern, they are best treated when caught early. Because there are so many illnesses that have wheezing as a symptom, it is hard to tell what your cat has. This is why going to a vet is your best bet. The vet can run tests to determine the cause and prescribe a suitable treatment plan.

Prevention is always best, so keeping your cat indoors and taking the necessary precautions when introducing a newly adopted cat into your home can help keep them safe from infections. 

Vaccines and parasite treatments are very important in preventing the spread of disease. So make sure that your cat is up to date on vaccines and worming.

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