My Cat Coughs and Hacks. Does My Cat Have Hairballs?

Constant coughing and hacking could mean more than hairballs. Hear how to determine whether hairballs, lung disease or anyting else is to blame.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM

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Persian Cat -- Does My Cat Have Hairballs?
Longhaired cats, like this Persian, are more prone to hairballs.
Q: My 2 ½-year-old Persian and Siamese mix cat coughs and hacks. She’s done this for about six weeks. She was tested for leukemia, heartworm etc., and was fine. She is otherwise healthy.

I thought it was a hairball issue. She is a strictly indoor cat. My cat’s vet gave me Laxatone my cat did cough up two hairballs that same weekend; however, she continues to do this awful hacking. She can't play very long before she starts hacking. She even hacked almost all night the other night so it's just not with activity.

She has food for indoor cats and treats for hairball control. I am worried about her. Does my cat have asthma? I just don't know and feel helpless.

A: People tend to blame cat hairballs for everything. A cat who hacks for six weeks likely does not have a hairball. Granted, Persians are longhaired cats and do get hairballs more frequently than short-haired cat breeds, but cats do not "hack” or "cough” up hairballs continuously, the way you’ve described. Cats vomit up hairballs. (People need to stop using the phrase "cough up a hairball”; it’s very misleading. Coughing suggests a lung problem. Hairballs live in the stomach, not the lungs.)

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If hairball diets and hairball gels/ointments do not curb the problem, then clearly something else is going on. Hairballs wouldn’t cause a cat to start hacking after just a few minutes of play.

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Cats that hack and cough are more likely to have a respiratory problem. A lung X-ray is the first test your cat needs. Many things might make your cat cough, for example, asthma, bronchitis, chylothorax (lymphatic fluid trapped between the lungs and the chest wall) and heartworm disease. You mention that the heartworm test was negative. Have your veterinarian take an X-ray.

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Your vet may want to do a few blood tests as well, although in most cases bloodwork doesn’t contribute any helpful information on the cause of the cough (although occasionally it can; for example, an increased number of a type of white blood cell called eosinophils suggests an allergic or parasitic cause. A high number of neutrophils may suggest an infectious cause.). Depending on the diagnosis, your vet might prescribe antibiotics, or anti-inflammatory drugs, to get the disorder under control.

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Reader Comments

Alberto    Fort Worth, TX

9/27/2013 9:29:19 AM

This is a great article, especially the tip about taking a video of the cat and bringing it with you to your vet visit! We are dealing with a similar issue with our year old short hair cat. The vet examined our cat and found nothing suspicious until he looked in his mouth. The poor kitty has a nasty sore around one of his top teeth about the back part of the mouth. So glad that it was not asthma, allergies, or something worse! Hopefully the steroid shot will fix him up!

Ellen    Geneva, IL

5/11/2012 7:59:31 PM

My medium hair black cat coughed about every 1/2 hour at times and through the night. Its head would be low to the floor and nothing was ever coughed up but you could see he was swallowing mucus. Vet said to switch to paper cat litter as there is no dust. This has seemed to help a lot. We do not use chemicals in the house or smoke, these are other things that can induce asthma in cats.

Lucielu    Longmont, CO

5/11/2012 8:09:54 AM

If the cat has an extreme Persian face, it could well be breathing problems. I used to have a Persian kitty who would snort when she was playing, and she wasn't even extreme.

Evelyn    Boynton Beach, FL

5/10/2012 4:55:58 PM

My 8 year old tabby coughed from the day I adopted her from a shelter. I immediately thought she must be allergic to something in my house since the shelter said she did not cough there. After many months of this and my conclusion that it was an "attention" getting behavior, we took x-rays of her lungs. The vet suggested giving her a steroid and she has not coughed since. It is now 3 weeks. Also she stopped grooming constantly as I guess the stress of coughing was gone. I am thrilled that she is doing so well. I no longer regret adopting an 8 year old.

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