One of my cats, Gabby, sometimes makes a coughing, wheezing noise, almost like coughing a hairball or doing the infamous scarf and barf move, but sometimes nothing comes out! So, is the cat whistling something to worry about? And does cat whistling always mean a trip to the vet?
First, what does a cat’s wheezing sound like?
As any cat parent knows, cats make all kinds of strange noises. My two cats do the scarf-and-barf every now and then, which means that sometimes they eat their food too quickly and throw it right away. The cat’s gasp is a distinct chop, chop, chop, followed by my cats arching their backs, opening their jaws wide, and puking. The results are not pretty and it sounds painful!
Chopping a hairball is a similar sound. I can hear something emerging. But sometimes when Gabby whistles it just sounds like he’s having the same fit of coughing or sneezing that I get when I breathe in something I’m allergic to. These fits usually last a few seconds to a minute and he makes distinct snorting / wheezing noises. Sometimes he shrugs his shoulders and stretches his neck as if to lengthen his air ducts to breathe better.
What is the difference between panting a cat and coughing a hairball?
Unfortunately, the difference between a cat who whistles and a cat who is coughing a hairball can be hard to tell, but if you don’t notice, it’s likely a gasp. “A cat cough or whistle sounds very much like a cat trying to chop a hairball,” says Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “In fact, they can often look very similar, but most of the time with a cough, nothing comes up.”
Why does cat cause wheezing?
Several factors can play a role in cats wheezing. “Coughing and wheezing in cats is most commonly associated with respiratory allergies or asthma,” explains Dr. Gibbons. “Wheezing can also occur with benign growths called polyps that appear in the sinuses or throat. Occasional wheezing can occur when foreign objects are trapped in the airways. “
Sometimes cats wheezing is a symptom of serious cat illness. “Heartworms and parasites like lungworms can cause wheezing,” says Dr. Gibbons. “Pneumonia can be a cause of a cough. Depending on the location of the growth, cancer can also cause wheezing. Heart failure occasionally causes coughing or wheezing in cats (more common in dogs), but it can happen. “
Does this problem always mean a trip to the vet?
Once you’ve ruled out hairballs, panting cats will require a trip to the veterinarian. (And even some hairball situations mean a trip to the vet!). “It is very important that your cat be examined by a veterinarian to determine the cause of the wheezing,” advises Dr. Gibbons.
Try to videotape your cat’s wheezing as your cat is unlikely to whistle all the time (if it does – it’s an emergency – see below and take him to a veterinarian as soon as possible) “It can be helpful to record an episode of wheezing to help your veterinarian determine the underlying cause,” says Dr. Anna Larson, DVM, at the Spot On Veterinary Hospital & Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. “X-rays (x-rays) and laboratory work can in many cases be required for a diagnosis.”
Is a cat’s wheezing an emergency?
Sometimes cat whistling means getting your kitten to a veterinarian as soon as possible. “Wheezing is an emergency when a cat gasps and cannot breathe,” says Dr. Gibbons. “Most cats return to their normal breathing function after a few coughs. If the cough doesn’t stop within a minute, or if your cat cannot seem to breathe, she should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. “
How do you treat cat pipes?
Treatments for cat whistles depend on the cause. Kittens can be sent home for either the short or long term. And just like human asthmatics, kittens wheezing from asthma can be given inhalers.
“Depending on the underlying cause of your cat’s wheezing, your veterinarian may determine the appropriate treatment,” says Dr. Larson. “This could be a steroid or inhaler for asthma, antibiotics for a bacterial infection, or antiviral supplements for a respiratory virus. Some of these disease processes require long-term treatment, others subside with a single therapy or simply with the tincture of time. You should always follow your trusted veterinarian’s instructions for monitoring and treating your cat’s wheezing, as changes in breathing can be very serious. “
Can You Stop Cats From Wheezing Before It Happens?
If your cat’s wheezing is caused by asthma, according to Dr. Gibbons take steps to reduce allergens and irritants in your living space by introducing HEPA filters and dusting and cleaning frequently. “Switching to a dust-free litter can also reduce coughing and wheezing fits in some cats,” advises Dr. Gibbons.
Is your cat panting – or is it coughing?
Cat whistles and cat coughs are similar. “Wheezing can be any sound from the airways (nose, throat, lungs),” explains Dr. Gibbons. “Cough is more specific to the lungs and more often associated with asthma (allergic bronchitis) and less often with heartworm, lungworm, lung tumors and rarely with heart disease.”
A cat that is coughing or a cat that whistles and coughs should also see a veterinarian.
What about cats that make snorting noises or snorting?
Gabby makes another strange noise that my other cat, Merritt, doesn’t make. This sound doesn’t sound like the cat’s painful gasping, but more like an annoyed snort. We called this the “Hufflepuff” (although I’m not sure if Gabby would be put into this Harry Potter house) because it sounds like a quick huffing or puff of air coming out of his nose. It’s an annoyed, sullen “hump” sound that makes Gabby sound like an old aristocrat who noticed an uninvited street kid at his fancy dinner party. But he usually only makes this noise when I pick him up after catching him exploring our unfinished basement.
That being said, you should still watch out for a cat that is snorting, puffing, coughing, snorting – or making any strange noises. “Snorting can be a sound of displeasure, but it can also be associated with irritation of the nose and throat,” says Dr. Gibbons. As with most things, you know best when your cat is a curmudgeon and when there may be a serious health issue at play. And when in doubt, see a veterinarian!
Top photo: © Anatoly Tushentsov | Thinkstock.
This piece was originally released in 2017.