What does a coughing cat look like? The descriptions are very consistent from and between cat guardians. It almost always is described as an “expected furball” that never materializes. In fact, most cats who cough are not seen immediately because of this confusion. The neck is outstretched and the wretching sound is mistaken for imminent vomit filled with a wad of fur.
This confusion is easily cleared up by the fact that “nothing came up”. Coughing in the cat is never normal and always should be addressed. An occasional sneeze from pollen or dust does not alarm anyone, but a cough is not so benign. At Cat Hospital of Portland, we pay close attention to a cough.
Louie is a lovely long-haired black and white male who is beloved by his owner, a retired dentist. While Louie is well-behaved at home, his “MO” in our hospital is not so benign. We often groomed him over the years and, in every case, he needed a sedative to tolerate it. In fact, his owner is rather embarrassed about his demeanor and usually drops him off rather than witness his antics.
Last month, when Louie arrived, he came with a cough. It was dry, not moist like a cold and rather raspy. Rather than his regular grooming, we knew we needed to find the source of this new development. We started with blood work that included a heartworm check despite the fact that Louie lives only indoors. 30% of cats who get heartworm disease are indoors only. Those pesky mosquitoes go everywhere.
His blood work and urinalysis were normal. The X-rays of his chest were not. There was fluid in his lungs that made seeing all of his heart difficult, a very abnormal finding. We added a test to figure out whether the fluid was from heart disease or something else , like pneumonia. That test sent us in the direction of his heart. We did an EKG, an echocardiogram and took his blood pressure, all the tests any doctor would do when a heart problem was anticipated.
Louie’s cough came from a big heart that wasn’t working as efficiently as it should and he was in moderate congestive heart failure. The treatment planned for him was based upon the kind of heart problem he had. As of today, he is feeling fine and feisty. He is no longer in heart failure. His heart needs help to function normally now so he will be on medication to help with that forever. He doesn’t seem to mind.
His owner is happy to know that Louie has a future and we are happy to know that we helped him have one. Coughing is not always heart disease but it is always serious and should never be thought of as “just a hairball”.