You’ve likely been “gifted” with your cat’s hairballs a time or two, as well as a few vomit puddles over the years. Did you know that hairballs are actually a product of vomiting, and not coughing? Many cat owners believe cats cough up hairballs, but these furry tubes come from the stomach, and must be vomited to be expelled. And, rather than in ball form, hairballs come out as cylindrical tubes, because they are forced back up the esophagus. So you now know about hairballs, but do you know the difference between coughing, retching, and vomiting in cats, and what each action signifies? We cover the differences, the causes, and the time to seek veterinary help.

The difference between coughing, vomiting, and retching in cats

Cats can be difficult to understand, especially their behavior and actions. Without correctly identifying their actions, an accurate diagnosis is challenging, so let’s look at the difference between three commonly confused behaviors.

  • Coughing — An expiratory effort that produces a sudden, noisy expulsion of air from the lungs
  • Vomiting — The production of stomach contents, often after a series of retching or gagging motions
  • Retching — An effort to vomit that may sound like a minor cough or a serious episode of gagging and stomach contractions

These three actions are often confused, because they can run together. For example, severe coughing bouts may end with a retch, or vomiting bile or other stomach contents. 

Coughing causes in cats

Retching or gagging is often confused with a respiratory cough in cats, especially “coughing up” hairballs. A cat’s cough is typically stimulated by an irritation or inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the trachea, bronchi, or bronchioles, and is designed to expel a foreign material or inflammatory secretion.

Common coughing causes in cats include:

  • Asthma — Asthma is one of the most common causes of coughing in cats, and can be induced by mold, pollen, perfume, obesity, cat litter dust, cigarette smoke, and stress. During an asthma attack, your cat may breathe with an open mouth and have a blue or gray tongue or gums. 
  • Parasites — Intestinal parasites can migrate up the esophagus and enter the trachea, causing coughing fits. Heartworms can also lead to respiratory disease in cats.
  • Allergies — In addition to skin issues, cats can develop respiratory problems, such as coughing, sneezing, and eye discharge, from allergies. 
  • Respiratory disease — Viral or bacterial diseases, such as feline viral rhinotracheitis, can cause coughing in cats.

Coughing in cats is not commonly associated with heart disease, as with dogs and people. 

Not sure what a cat coughing looks like? Click here to see an example.

Vomiting causes in cats

Cats can vomit for a great number of reasons, some easily remedied on their own, and others requiring veterinary care. One of the most common reasons cats vomit is because of hairballs. When cats groom themselves, tiny hooks on their tongue catch loose hair, which they swallow. Most of the hair passes through the entire digestive tract with no problems, but some may remain in the stomach and form into a ball that the cat vomits in tube form up the esophagus.

Other vomiting causes in cats include:

  • Food intolerance — An intolerance to a diet ingredient can cause your cat to vomit and have diarrhea. A protein source most commonly causes food intolerances.
  • Intestinal parasites — An overwhelming worm burden, such as roundworms, can cause your cat to vomit these intestinal parasites, and to pass them in their stool.
  • Kidney disease — As the kidneys fail to adequately filter toxins and wastes from the bloodstream, the backlog can make your cat vomit. 
  • Hyperthyroidism — Vomiting is a common sign of feline hyperthyroidism, along with a ravenous hunger and weight loss. 

In some cases, stress and environmental changes can be severe enough to cause a cat to vomit.

If you are unsure whether your cat is trying to vomit, click here to see what vomiting looks like. 

When to seek veterinary help for your cat’s coughing or vomiting

While a single coughing or vomiting episode is often no cause for concern, several incidents require veterinary treatment, including:

  • A cough accompanied by sneezing, which may be caused by a viral respiratory infection
  • A cough accompanied by wheezing, which may be bronchial in origin and associated with asthma
  • A cough accompanied by weight loss, lethargy, and anorexia, which may indicate parasitic diseases, or cancer
  • Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball
  • Vomiting paired with constipation or diarrhea
  • Blood in the vomit
  • Chronic, or severe, coughing or vomiting episodes

Are you unsure whether your feline friend is coughing or retching? Or, are you finding hairballs all over the place? If so, your cat needs help from their friends at Just Cats Clinic. Give us a call to schedule an appointment.