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Home > Cats > The Difference Between a Cat Cough and a Hairball: Vet-Approved Facts & Reasons to Worry

The Difference Between a Cat Cough and a Hairball: Vet-Approved Facts & Reasons to Worry

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Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca

Veterinarian, BVSc GPCert (Ophthal) MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Hairballs can be a fact of life for most cat owners. At some point or other, those adorable felines resort to gagging, heaving, and throwing up a rather disgusting pile of slimy fur.

But perhaps your cat has been making coughing noises lately, and you’re not sure if they are trying to cough out a hairball or if there’s something else going on.

Here, we look at the differences between coughing and vomiting hairballs in cats and when it might be time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

divider-catWhat Is the Difference Between Coughing and Vomiting?

Sometimes, coughing and vomiting can be difficult to distinguish. Some cats might make coughing noises before they start retching and eventually vomiting.

This is why you might be confused as to whether your cat is coughing or just retching.
  • Coughing is a sudden, forceful, and noisy exhalation of air from the lungs.
  • Retching is usually what happens before vomiting, which might sound like coughing initially but will produce gagging and abdominal contractions.
  • Vomiting can occur after retching and gagging but ends up with the expulsion of the stomach contents.

What Can Cause Coughing in Cats?

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  • Asthma: This is one of the most common reasons that cats cough. It involves an overreaction of the cat’s immune system against an allergen that causes constriction of the airways as a response. It can be triggered by allergens such as perfume, smoke, pollens, molds, and dust. The lower airways become inflamed, which leads to coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties.
You might hear your cat wheezing, and they might breathe with an open mouth. Also, look out for bluish gums.
  • Parasites, particularly lungworms and heartworms, can be found in the cat’s lungs, heart, and bloodstream. 
  • Feline upper respiratory infection covers most respiratory infections, including viruses like Feline Herpesvirus type-1 (FHV-1), also called feline viral rhinotracheitis, and Feline Calicivirus (FCV). It also includes bacterial infections such as Bordetella bronchiseptica and Chlamydophila felis. Other than coughing, common symptoms are similar to those of a cold: discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, and conjunctivitis.
  • Inhaled foreign objects are another hazard. There’s the risk of items becoming stuck in the gastrointestinal tract, which requires surgery. But sometimes, small objects like blades of grass can get stuck in the throat or respiratory system, which could cause a cat to gag and cough in response. This can also include small particles like powders, which can be dangerous for a cat to breathe in and could cause coughing.

About Hairballs

Now that you know the common reasons that you might hear your cat coughing, let’s take a closer look at hairballs. For the most part, hairballs are somewhat normal, but a cat that throws them up too frequently might have a medical problem caused by either skin or digestive issues. 

The most significant difference between hairballs and coughing is that most coughing issues start in the lungs and hairballs are stomach issues. So, essentially, hairballs are vomit.

When your cat throws up a hairball, there is absolutely no question that you’re cleaning up a hairball. Most cats swallow a large amount of hair because they spend so much time grooming themselves every day. All this hair moves through the gastrointestinal tract into the stomach, and from there, it is supposed to be evacuated through the cat’s feces. Some cats are more obsessive about grooming, or may have an itchy skin condition, and could end up with excess hair in the stomach that they have to eliminate.

If your cat is vomiting consistently more than once a month, speak to your vet so you can rule out any health problems. Your vet will examine your cat’s skin. You can use hairball laxatives and just try grooming your cat more frequently. This should help most cats that don’t have an underlying digestive problem.

cat vomit in grass
Image By: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

When Should You Worry?

If your cat is vomiting and throwing up hairballs once in a while, this isn’t usually anything to worry about. The same goes for the very occasional cough in an otherwise healthy cat.

But there are certain situations in which you should take your cat to the veterinarian straight away:
  • Your cat has repeated coughing episodes
  • Your cat is clearly struggling to breathe.
  • Your cat’s breathing is labored and heavy.
  • There is discharge from your cat’s eyes or nose.
  • Your cat is panting or breathing through an open mouth.
  • The tongue and/or gums are gray or bluish in color.
  • Your cat seems to lose consciousness.
  • There are sudden changes in your cat’s behavior, such as loss of appetite, hiding, and lethargy.
  • Your cat just seems to be in some kind of distress.
Other signs to look for are:
  • A cough with wheezing sounds might be coming from the lungs and is potentially associated with asthma.
  • A cough with weight loss and lethargy might be caused by parasites or cancer.
  • A cough with sneezing might be a viral respiratory infection.

If your cat is also frequently vomiting without expelling hairballs or if there is blood in the vomit, this is cause for concern. Additionally, if there is diarrhea or constipation along with the vomiting or it’s chronic or severe, see your vet.



It should be easy to tell if your cat is coughing or getting ready to regurgitate a hairball. Also, you know your cat better than anyone, so if your gut is telling you that something might be wrong, go to your vet.

If your cat just vomits a hairball from time to time and seems otherwise fine, everything is probably fine. But frequent and ongoing hairball vomiting should be evaluated.

Featured Image Credit: Ada K, Pixabay

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