What Is It, Why Does It Occur and Should You See a Vet?


Considered one of my cats, Gabby, will sometimes make a coughing, wheezing sound, almost like he’s about to cough up a hairball or do the infamous scarf-and-barf move, but sometimes, nothing comes up! So, is cat wheezing something to fret about? And does cat wheezing at all times mean a visit to the vet?

First, what does cat wheezing sound like?

As any cat parent knows, cats make all kinds of weird sounds. Each of my cats do the scarf-and-barf every now and again, meaning that sometimes they may eat their food too fast and throw it up immediately afterward. The cat wheezing sound is a definite hack, hack, HACKING noise followed by my cats arching their backs, opening their jaws wide and puking. The outcomes aren’t pretty and it sounds painful!

Hacking up a hairball is the same sound. I can hear that something is about to come back up. But sometimes, when Gabby wheezes, it just feels like he’s having the identical coughing or sneezing fit that I get once I breathe in something I’m allergic to. These attacks normally last just a few seconds to a minute and he makes distinct snorting / wheezing noises. Sometimes, he hunches his shoulders and strains his neck out as if to elongate his air pipes in an try to breathe higher.

What’s the difference between cat wheezing and coughing up a hairball?

Unfortunately, the difference between a cat wheezing and a cat coughing up a hairball might be hard to inform, but in case you don’t notice anything coming up, it’s probably wheezing. “A cat cough or wheeze sounds very much like a cat attempting to hack up a hairball,” says Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “The truth is, they’ll often look very similar but more often than not with coughing, nothing comes up.”

Why causes cat wheezing?

Just a few various factors might be at play in relation to cat wheezing. “Coughing and wheezing in cats is mostly related to respiratory allergies or asthma,” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Wheezing may occur with benign growths called polyps that occur within the sinuses or throat. Occasionally, wheezing can occur with foreign bodies trapped inside the respiratory tract.”

Sometimes, cat wheezing is a symptom of great cat diseases. “Heartworms and parasites, reminiscent of lungworms, could cause wheezing,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Pneumonia is usually a reason for coughing. Depending on the placement of the expansion, cancer may cause wheezing. Heart failure uncommonly causes coughing or wheezing in cats (it’s more common in dogs), but it might occur.”

Does this issue at all times mean a visit to the vet?

Should you’ve ruled out hairballs, cat wheezing does warrant a visit to the vet. (And even some hairball situations mean a visit to the vet!). “It is extremely vital to have your cat examined by a veterinarian to find out the reason for the wheezing,” Dr. Gibbons advises.

Since your cat might be not continually wheezing (if he’s, it’s an emergency — please see below and get him to a vet ASAP), attempt to capture your cat wheezing on video. “It might probably be helpful to record an episode of wheezing to assist your vet determine the underlying cause,” says Dr. Anna Larson, DVM, at Spot On Veterinary Hospital & Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. “Radiographs (X-rays) and lab work could also be obligatory for a diagnosis in lots of cases.”

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?

Sometimes, cat wheezing means getting your kitty to a vet ASAP. “Wheezing is an emergency when a cat is gasping for air and unable to breathe,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Most cats return to normal respiratory function after just a few coughs. If the coughing shouldn’t be stopping inside one minute or it looks like your cat cannot breathe, she or he must be dropped at a veterinarian immediately.”

How do you treat cat wheezing?  

Treatments for cat wheezing rely on the cause. Kitties could also be sent home with either short- or long-term treatments. And, identical to human asthmatics, kitties who’re wheezing due to asthma may get inhalers, too.

“Depending on the underlying reason for your cat’s wheezing, your veterinarian will determine the suitable treatment, if obligatory,” Dr. Larson says. “This will be a steroid or inhaler for asthma, antibiotics for a bacterial infection or anti-viral supplements for a respiratory virus. A few of these disease processes require long-term treatment and a few will resolve with a single course of therapy, or just the tincture of time. It is best to at all times follow your trusted veterinarian’s instructions on monitoring and treating your cat’s wheezing, as any respiratory changes might be very serious.”

Are you able to prevent cat wheezing before it happens?

In case your cat’s wheezing is brought on by asthma, Dr. Gibbons says you’ll be able to take steps to cut back allergens and irritants in your living space by introducing HEPA filters and continuously dusting and cleansing. “Switching to a dust-free litter may reduce episodes of coughing and wheezing for some cats,” Dr. Gibbons advises.

Is your cat wheezing — or coughing?

Cat wheezing and cat coughing are similar. “Wheezing might be any noise from the respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs),” Dr. Gibbons explains. “Coughing is more specific to the lungs and more commonly related to asthma (allergic bronchitis) and fewer commonly with heartworm, lungworm, tumors within the lungs and, rarely, heart disease.”

A cat who’s coughing, or a cat who’s wheezing and coughing, must also see a vet.

What about cats who make snorting noises or huffs?

Gabby makes one other strange noise that my other cat, Merritt, doesn’t. This noise doesn’t sound the identical as that painful cat wheezing, but more of an annoyed snort. We’ve dubbed this the “hufflepuff” (though I’m unsure Gabby could be sorted into that Harry Potter house), because it feels like a brief huff or puff of air coming out of his nose. It’s an annoyed, grumpy “hrumph” form of noise that makes Gabby sound like an old-timey aristocrat who noticed an uninvited street urchin at his fancy banquet. But, normally, he just makes this noise once I pick him up after I’ve caught him exploring our unfinished basement again.

That being said, you must still listen to a cat who’s huffing, puffing, coughing, snorting — or making any form of strange noise. “Snorting is usually a sound of displeasure, but can be related to irritation to the nose and throat,” Dr. Gibbons says. As with most things, you already know best when your cat is being a curmudgeon and when a serious health issue may be at play. And when doubtful, see a vet!

Top photograph: ©Анатолий Тушенцов | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

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