Wheezing in Cats – What To Do?

While cats are known for meowing, they can produce a wide variety of sounds. In fact, some cats can even make a sound similar to that of a chirping bird. The sounds they make are subject to how vocal they are and how willing they are to make sounds.

Wheezing, however, is one sound they make whether they are willing to or not—when it happens, they can’t help it!. But it’s important to know exactly what wheezing is since many cat owners classify any unusual respiratory sound their pets make as “wheezing”, even when it’s not.

Medically speaking, wheezing is a high-pitched sound that occurs when a pet exhales through compromised airways. This sound is often caused by the narrowing of the airway, which makes it difficult for air to enter the lungs or be expelled from them.

cat snoring while sleeping

The wheezing sound may be the result of trapped air being forced out of the lower regions of the lungs and expelled through narrowed air passages.

What Does Not Qualify as Wheezing?

Not every unusual respiratory sound your cat makes can be classified as wheezing. Here are some sounds your cat makes that can be mistaken for wheezing.

  • Stertor

Stertor is basically a low-pitched noisy breathing sound produced during inhalation that is similar to snoring. It is often caused by the blockage of the airway in the pharynx.

This sound can often be noticed during a cat’s deep sleep and is somewhat analagous to a snore. Overweight cats are more prone to making these sounds.

  • Stridor

Another less common sound, stridor is a high-pitched noisy breathing produced when rigid tissues vibrate during breathing. This happens when the larynx (also known as the voice box) is partially or completely blocked.

This sound can occur either during inhalation or exhalation.

  • Whistling

If you’ve ever seen a cat suffering from upper respiratory congestion, it’s highly likely that you’ve caught a high-pitched whistling sound coming from the cat. Congestion can be caused by any number of respiratory infections.

Whistling is often accompanied by other upper respiratory signs such as sneezing, ocular discharge, and nasal discharge.

  • Dyspnea

If you think people are the only ones who can suffer from dyspnea, you’re wrong. Basically a difficulty in breathing, dyspnea can occur while inhaling or exhaling. However, dyspnea typically happens when your pet is struggling to breathe s a result of pneumonia, heart failure, chest tumors or other lower airway (lung-related) issues.

Symptoms of Cat Wheezing

Cat wheezing sounds are similar to those made by wheezing humans. The wheezing might sound painful and it might also look painful depending on how your cat is acting. While wheezing, the cat might hunch its shoulders and extend its neck, moving it back and forth. It’ll look like it wants to cough something up or is trying to breathe in more air by extending its neck.

In some cases, wheezing is barely perceptible and only audible to your veterinarian when using a stethoscope.

The Causes of Cat Wheezing

There can be a number of reasons why your cat is producing wheezing sounds. Chances are that the wheezing sounds are  due to at least one of the following:

  • Hairballs

When cats vomit hairballs they may make wheezing-type sounds as they struggle to produce the clump of hair from the pit of their stomachs. In these cases, owners don’t have much to worry about. Once the hairball is expelled, cats will breathe normally again. In some rare instances, however, the hairball might become too large for cats to effectively disgorge from the digestive tract.These cats may require surgery to remove the built-up hairball.

  • Foreign Objects

Sometimes, cats swallow foreign objects like pieces of toys or large portions of food that they may find difficult to expel from their bodies. When this happens, they might start to wheeze while attempting to dispel these items. In most cases, these objects are still in the digestive tract, as with hairballs, and the wheezing sound is related to the narrowing of the airways as things pass through the nearby digestive tract. However, should objects get stuck inside their respiratory tracts, things can get more complicated. These cats require immediate veterinary attention to restore their ability to breathe normally.

Aside from wheezing, your cat may also start to spasm as it tries to cough up the foreign object that’s lodged inside.

While it’s likely your pet won’t welcome probing hands, you can try to open her mouth to check the palate and anything visible in the throat. Be very mindful when you do this, however, that you are not bitten! Professional intervention is best!

  • Flat Face

The facial structure can also be a determinant as to whether one cat is more prone to making wheezing sounds than others. In most cases, however, this is not a true wheeze. Stertor, stridor and whistling sounds are very similar and this is typically what owners are hearing. Cat breeds with a flat face structure are more likely to make these sounds due to their short noses. Having a flat face can sometimes make it difficult for cats to breathe due to redundant and compressed tissues in this area. This is a condition called brachycephalic syndrome.

With this condition, it sounds as if something is clogging your cat’s airways, which produces these characteristic sounds.

  • Allergic bronchitis and feline asthma

Cats are not immune to allergies and some of these can cause wheezing. These cats can suffer from allergic bronchitis, feline asthma, or both. Pollen, dust, cigarette smoke, and molds are just some of the allergens that can trigger these conditions. If you want to avoid these substances from triggering your cat’s respiratory allergies, do your best to maintain a clean home and allow your cat to breathe plenty of fresh air.

All cats who make wheezing sounds, especially when accompanied by coughing, should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

  • Lower Respiratory Problems

One of the biggest signs that the integrity of your pet’s respiratory system has been jeopardized is wheezing. Respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, lung cancer, and emphysema can cause wheezing sounds.

  • Parasites

Parasites can not only cause wheezing, but also come with a host of other symptoms such as coughing, weakness, loss of appetite, vomiting, and lethargy, among other things. Heartworms and lungworms, in particular, can inhabit your cat’s lungs and are extremely dangerous, especially if they are not removed immediately.

Since the symptoms exhibited by parasite-ridden cats are also the symptoms of several other conditions, this can make it difficult to detect the problem and thus can have serious repercussions on your cat’s wellbeing.

  • Tumors, Polyps, and Cancerous Growths

If your cat is making constant wheezing sounds, there may be a growth in its sinus, throat, or respiratory system. Polyps, tumors, and cancers are the most common types of growths and many can be properly treated and removed by a veterinarian.

  • Heart Conditions and Other Diseases

If your cat is constantly producing wheezing sounds but the cause isn’t anything we’ve mentioned above, then there is a possibility that your pet is suffering from heart disease.

If the wheezing persists, it’s time to visit your veterinarian.

Cat Wheezing: Treatment

There are times when cat wheezing is not alarming, especially when your cat is simply trying to cough up a hairball. If the wheezing persists, it’s time to pay your veterinarian a visit.

Your vet may perform a number of tests to determine the cause of your cat’s wheezing. Blood work, urinalysis and X-rays are typically undertaken. Once the cause has been revealed, the vet will create a treatment plan for your pet. Treatment plans for conditions that cause wheezing vary widely depending on the source of the sound.

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