It sounds like my cat is trying to cough up a hairball but can’t. What is the cause and treatment? Nov 5, 2018

It sounds like my cat is trying to cough up a hairball but can’t. What is the cause and treatment?

Original Question: At times my cat sounds like he has a hairball stuck in his throat. However, no hairball comes up. - Susan

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your question.

This is such an interesting question to me. Basically what you’re asking is what conditions could cause a cat to cough or heave like it has a hairball but doesn’t.

I would first recommend that you have your veterinarian perform a physical examination and consultation to investigate the causes of the symptom you’re witnessing. If possible, I would also have you try your best to record an episode of this coughing/retching/heaving that you are seeing. There are certain body postures that could lend support for certain conditions. Here are some thoughts I would share as possibilities to discuss with your veterinarian but given your question, I cannot diagnose this for you or be certain if any of these ailments are present. I’ll simply list conditions that may have what you describe of a cat trying to cough up a hairball but can’t as a symptom. Here they are:

  • Asthma is common in cats and it can cause a retching like cough that can mimic an attempt to bring up a hairball. Evaluating this with an X-ray would be recommended.
  • Any gastrointestinal disease could result in retching or vomiting in a cat. These would include bacterial infection, intestinal parasites, pancreatitis, gastritis, dietary sensitivities, nausea, metabolic diseases, kidney disease, foreign body ingestion, liver disease, and others which have a broad range of diagnostic testing to investigate and confirm. Performing general blood work, urine testing, parasite tests, X-rays, fecal cultures, dietary trials and ultrasound imaging would help determine if any of these conditions are present.
  • A hairball that is difficult to regurgitate. I have not seen many cases of this but it could be considered. Performing an X-ray would help identify this. You could consider using a hairball laxative for a few days as a trial to resolve this possible condition but keep in mind that if something more serious is present then you could be losing a valuable opportunity to treat a condition properly and early while treating for the incorrect diagnosis.

I hope some of these thoughts help to engage your veterinarian in the discussion.

I hope this helps.

Dr. Clayton Greenway

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It sounds like my cat is trying to cough up a hairball but can't. What is the cause and treatment?
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It sounds like my cat is trying to cough up a hairball but can't. What is the cause and treatment?
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Here are some thoughts I would share as possibilities to discuss with your veterinarian but given your question, I cannot diagnose this for you or be certain if any of these ailments are present. I'll simply list conditions that may have what you describe as a symptom.
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Healthcare for Pets
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