Q: My one-year-old male British Shorthair has been coughing frequently for a few weeks. I thought it might have been a hairball, so I gave him some hairball remedy. However, none have come up with his hacking and now it’s happening at least twice a day. Should I bring him to the vet and get tests done? If so, what tests should he undergo?

First of all, you need to determine the nature of the cough. Did the cough come on once or twice or is it repetitive? Was there any discharge with the coughing? What colour and consistency is the discharge? How long has your cat been coughing? Secondly, try to observe if there are other clinical signs such as nose or eye discharge, inappetence, lethargy, and/or vomiting. Is your cat still eating, alert, and active?

Coughing is a normal reflex of the body that helps clear the air passages of any blockage or irritants that hinder air flow. In acute conditions, this reflex is protective but if it is chronic, it can be rather exhausting for the animal. In acute coughing, the most common cause is aspiration of something foreign such as hairballs which are stuck in the throat. Food or fluids can also be aspirated which can lead to a more serious condition. In chronic coughing, it is usually due to asthma or bronchitis issues.

While there are many causes of coughing such as parasites, allergens, foreign objects and tumours in the lungs, a bacteria called bordetella is commonly associated with coughing in cats. Symptoms typically include fever, discharge from the nose or sneezing, and breathing difficulties or wheezing.  Viruses such as herpesvirus and calicivirus can cause coughing as well as sneezing, eye and nose discharges, and eye or mouth ulcers.  

You should bring your cat to the vet for a physical examination. Blood tests are done  to determine the complete blood count as well as its biochemistry. Radiographs of the chest can be done to check the lungs and heart, as well as the associated structures. A lung wash may be ordered if there is a need for cytological examination and culture of suspected pathogens. An ultrasound of the heart can be done if it is suspected to have some heart issues, although coughing is rarely associated with heart issues in cats.