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

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

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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