Cat Wheezing: Causes, Signs & Treatments

Almost every long-term cat owner has had the dubious honor of stepping on an unexpected hairball at some point, as well as witnessing dramatic vocalizations that produced it in the first place. Between feline “chatter”, yowling, hissing, purring, chirping, and sneezing, it’s not always easy to tell if a cat is having a breathing issue or is just stalking an errant moth. For pet parents that have observed their cat wheezing and want to know if it’s time to wrangle, beg, and bribe him into the carrier for a trip to the vet, here’s what cat owners should be watching for:

Signs of Cat Wheezing and Coughing

  • Unproductive Hacking & Wheezing: Hairballs, while unsightly, are actually a perfectly normal and healthy reality of cat ownership. The older a cat is and the longer his hair, the more likely he is to cough up hairballs with relative frequency. Kittens are still learning how to groom themselves, so they don’t end up with as much fur in their stomach as their older counterparts, and thus are less likely to produce hairballs. Long-haired cat breeds, unsurprisingly, ingest more hair during the grooming process and need to expel it more often to prevent blockages.

If a cat “assumes the position” and appears to be trying unsuccessfully to cough up a hairball, he may need some assistance from a vet or medicine. Certain over-the-counter feline food additive pastes, typically found in a toothpaste-like tube, can help by coating the throat and making hairball production easier. However, if a pet cat is frequently having bouts of coughing and wheezing without producing a hairball, there could be more serious issues at play and a vet should be consulted.

  • Overly Lethargic or Unsteady on Their Feet: Cats aren’t shy about sleeping – the popular term “cat nap” says it all. However, even the most laid-back cat will have his normal periods of activity, even if they’re only zooming around the house for no reason at 2am. For pet owners who observe their wheezing cat not eating, sleeping in even more than usual, failing to groom himself, or passing up water, their difficulty in breathing is most likely a symptom of something serious.

In order to provide the most useful data during a visit to the vet, make a note of the last time the cat in question drank, ate, and used the litter box, and approximately how long he’s been acting abnormal. It can also be helpful to capture a short video of the cat’s wheezing to play for the vet, just in case the pet suddenly seems healthier once he’s on the exam table.

  • Mucus or Fluids Are Present: While hairball-coughing is considered a “productive” event, it’s not the only thing that wheezing and coughing can bring up in cats. For cat owners who notice their feline fur-baby is experiencing a runny nose or teary eyes, and their wheezing is accompanied by sneezing, the cat might just have a cold. A vet may prescribe antibiotics to get a kitty back up on his paws, as cats instinctively tend to hide symptoms as a reflex from their ancestors’ wild days, when weaknesses would make them easy prey for bigger predators. In other words, if the sick cat is wheezing and producing mucus, chances are he may have been dealing with an illness for a while and needs to be treated.
  • He Could Potentially Have Parasites: Even if a cat looks otherwise healthy, if he’s never been wormed, has recently been outside, or shares a home with another animal that goes outside, he could have parasites. Infections by lungworms and heartworms can’t be seen by outward observation, and both are common in kittens – particularly strays born outside. If a cat is continually wheezing, he needs to have a parasite test done as soon as possible – the sooner a positive result is found, the more successfully it can be treated. If a parasite test comes back positive, make sure that any other animals in the house are also tested and treated, or pet owners could be dealing with a perpetual infection cycle.
  • He May Have Been Exposed To Something New: If a normally-healthy cat begins wheezing regularly, pet parents need to consider anything new/different that may have been brought into the home recently. Even something as innocent as new carpeting or a change in laundry detergent can cause allergic reactions in cats, which in turn can lead to wheezing. Cleaning well with unscented, cat-safe cleaning fluids and frequent vacuuming will help keep allergens at bay. If a cat is also scratching himself and doesn’t appear to have fleas, he may need allergy medication from his vet, as well as a good top-to-bottom house cleaning. For cat owners who plan on bringing new plants into the home, make sure they’re pet-safe as well: certain plants can be toxic to cats, who will often curiously chomp on any leaves in reach.


Felines may be finicky, but when they start wheezing and having trouble breathing, it’s important not to wave off their discomfort. Be a good feline parent and get to the bottom of the cause: with any luck, a well-cared for cat will be back up on his paws and knocking things off the coffee table in no time!

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