Tue. May 30th, 2023
cats wheezing

Cat Wheezing: What Is It, Why Does It Happen and Should You See a Vet? Your cat may be wheezing, but it might also be a hairball. Here are some tips on how to distinguish between the two, the causes of cat wheezing, and what to do about it.

My cat Gabby occasionally makes a coughing, gasping noise that nearly sounds like he’s about to throw up a hairball or perform the classic scarf-and-barf maneuver, but nothing ever comes up! Is wheezing in cats a cause for concern? And does a trip to the vet follow a cat’s wheezing always?

First, what does cat wheezing sound like?

Cats make a variety of strange noises, as any cat parent will attest. Every now and again, one or both of my cats will “scarf and barf,” which is when they consume their food too quickly and instantly vomit it up. My cats’ backs arch, their mouths open wide, and they hurl up after they make the unmistakable hack, hack, HACKING sound associated with cat wheezing. The outcomes are ugly, and it seems agonizing!

The sound of a hairball being hacked up is similar. Something is about to come up, I can hear it. Gabby occasionally whines, but other times it just sounds like he’s having a coughing or sneezing fit, like when I breathe in something to which I’m allergic. He typically makes distinct snorting or wheezing noises and these episodes range anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. On occasion, he stretches his neck out and hunches his shoulders as if trying to lengthen his airways.

What distinguishes a cat coughing up a hairball from a cat wheezing?

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to distinguish between a cat wheezing and one coughing up a hairball, but if you don’t see anything coming up, it’s probably just wheezing. Dr. Sasha Gibbons of the Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, notes that a cat’s cough or wheeze is remarkably similar to a cat trying to hack up a hairball. In fact, they frequently resemble one another, but when you cough, nothing usually rises to the surface.

What causes a cat to wheeze?

Wheezing in cats can be caused by a number of different circumstances. According to Dr. Gibbons, asthma or respiratory allergies are the most typical causes of coughing and wheezing in cats. Additionally, benign polyps that develop in the sinuses or throat can cause wheezing. In rare cases, wheezing can result from foreign objects being stuck in the respiratory system.

Cat wheezing can occasionally be a sign of serious feline illnesses. Dr. Gibbons claims that parasites like lungworms and heartworms can induce wheezing. Coughing can be brought on by pneumonia. Cancer can also induce wheezing, depending on where the tumor is located. Although heart failure seldom results in coughing or wheezing in cats (it does so more frequently in dogs), it can happen.

Is a trip to the vet always required for this problem?

If hairballs have been ruled out, a trip to the vet is necessary if your cat is wheezing. (And in some cases, a hairball requires a trip to the vet!) Dr. Gibbons says that you should get a veterinarian to check your cat and identify the source of the wheezing.

Try to record your cat wheezing because it’s unlikely that he is constantly doing it (if he is, it’s an emergency; please see below and take him to the clinic right away). Dr. Anna Larson, DVM, of Spot On Veterinary Hospital & Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, advises that recording a wheezing episode may be helpful in assisting your veterinarian in identifying the underlying problem. In many situations, radiographs (X-rays) and laboratory tests may be required for a diagnosis.

Cat Wheezing
Is your cat wheezing, coughing up a hairball or in need of an emergency vet visit? Photography by Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.

Is cat wheezing an emergency?

When your cat starts wheezing, you should take them right away to the doctor. According to Dr. Gibbons, wheezing occurs when a cat is struggling to breathe and gasping for air. “After a few coughs, most cats resume their normal respiratory function. Bring your cat to the doctor right away if the coughing doesn’t stop in a minute or if it appears that your cat is having trouble breathing.

How do you treat cat wheezing?  

The causes of cat wheezing affect the treatments. Kittens may be given either short- or long-term therapies before being returned home. Additionally, just like people with asthma, cats who are wheezing due to their asthma may be prescribed inhalers.

Your veterinarian will decide the best course of action, if required, based on the underlying reason of your cat’s wheezing, according to Dr. Larson. It could be an inhaler or steroid for treating asthma, antibiotics for treating a bacterial infection, or antiviral medicines for treating a respiratory virus. Some of these illness processes require long-term therapy, while others can be treated briefly or only with time alone. As any breathing changes can be quite hazardous, you should always go by the advice of your trusted veterinarian when it comes to monitoring and treating your cat’s wheezing.

Can cat wheezing be stopped before it starts?

Dr. Gibbons advises that if your cat has asthma, you can take measures to lessen allergens and irritants in your home by installing HEPA filters and regularly dusting and cleaning. Dr. Gibbons says that switching to a dust-free litter may help some cats experience less coughing and wheezing.

Is your cat wheezing — or coughing?

Cat coughing and wheezing sound similar. According to Dr. Gibbons, wheezing can be any sound coming from the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs). Coughing is more particular to the lungs and more frequently linked to allergic bronchitis (asthma), while lung tumors, heart disease, heartworm, and heartworm are less frequently linked to coughing.

Additionally, a cat that is gasping and coughing needs to see a veterinarian.

What about felines that snort or huff?

My other cat, Merritt, does not make any of Gabby’s peculiar noises. This sound is more like an indignant snort than that agonizing cat wheezing. We call this the “hufflepuff” because it sounds like a brief huff or puff of air coming out of his nose (although I’m not sure Gabby would be sorted into that Harry Potter house). Gabby sounds like an old-time aristocrat who discovered an unwanted street urchin at his elegant dinner party with her irritated, grumpy “hrumph” tone. However, he often only makes this noise when I take him up after discovering him once more exploring our unfinished basement.

Nevertheless, if a cat is huffing, puffing, coughing, snorting, or making any other unusual noises, you should still pay attention to it. According to Dr. Gibbons, snorting can be a sign of irritation to the nose and throat in addition to being a sign of discontent. You can usually tell when your cat is acting crankily and when a major health problem might be at play. If in doubt, consult a veterinarian!

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