trouble swallowing in cats
Cat Health and Wellness

Why is My Cat Gulping When Swallowing?

Occasional gags and coughs are common when cats are eating. However, if you notice that your cat is gulping, gagging, coughing, having trouble chewing or swallowing frequently, it may be due to a health condition.

If your cat is always trying to swallow, along with coughing, gagging or drooling, it may be due to dysphagia. This may result in rapid weight loss due to your cat’s inability to eat.  Hairballs or feline asthma may also lead to gulping sounds in cats.

If you notice your cat behaving unusually, having difficulty eating, or gulping or gagging during meals, take it to the vet. Not treating the problem may lead to further complications, making treatment more difficult.

What Causes Gulping in Cats When Swallowing?

The most common cause for this is a disorder, called dysphagia. Treatment for dysphagia will depend on the cause of the condition.

Hairballs can also cause cats to take gulps. However, if gulping is frequent, it may be a sign of feline asthma, which can be mistaken for hairballs.

cat swallowing a lot and not eating

Feline Dysphagia

Dysphagia is a medical term which refers to difficulty swallowing. Dysphagia can occur as oral dysphagia, pharyngeal dysphagia, and cricopharyngeal dysphagia.

It can happen for many reasons, ranging from anatomical to neuromuscular causes. A cat with dysphagia may make gulping sounds while attempting to swallow, or eat unusually.

Some of the causes of dysphagia are treatable, while others are not. Although dysphagia is a mild condition in some cats, it may result in severe distress and weight loss.

Symptoms

A cat with oral dysphagia may chew in an unusual way, such as tiling the head backward or to one side while eating.

Some cats with the disorder may have food lodged in the cheeks folds of their mouth devoid of any saliva. Dysphagia can look like hiccups.

Some cats may drop their food or appear as if they’re trying to swallow a lot but not eating. Dysphagia in the mouth usually occurs due to:

  • Dental disease
  • Swelling or deterioration of the muscles responsible for chewing
  • Paralysis of the tongue or jaw
  • Inability to open the mouth

In the case of pharyngeal dysphagia (dysphagia in the pharynx), a cat may be able to grab its food, but will have difficulty swallowing.

A cat with this disorder may make repeated attempts to swallow. This is often accompanied by excessive chewing, gagging and flexing of the head and neck. There may be a weak gag reflex after eating, followed by some nasal discharge.

Another type of dysphagia, called cricopharyngeal dysphagia which occurs at the end of the pharynx, commonly causes gagging in cats during eating. The cat may be able to swallow after multiple attempts, but it may experience some gagging and coughing.

Oftentimes, a cat with this condition will throw its food back up. Due to this reason, cats with this disorder are typically emaciated.

Causes

The following are some common anatomical and mechanical causes of dysphagia in cats:

  • Abscess
  • Pharyngeal inflammation
  • Inflammatory growths
  • Foreign body in the mouth
  • Mouth tissue packed with white cells
  • Enlarged lymph nodes behind the pharynx
  • A tumor
  • Lower jaw fracture
  • Jaw joint disorders (from luxation or fracture)
  • Cleft palate
  • Saliva draining into the body through a pocket
  • Injury to the mouth
  • Lingual frenulum disorder (problem with a short band of tissue under the tongue)

Dysphagia can also occur due to pain. The following are causes of pain-induced dysphagia in cats:

  • Inflammation of the mouth, tongue or pharynx
  • Dental disease
  • Injury or trauma to the jaw

Causes of dysphagia from paralysis:

  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Neosporosis, Toxoplasmosis and other infectious polymyositis
  • Multiple nerve disorders
  • Myoneural junction problems
  • Hereditary muscle inflammation

Feline dysphagia can also occur due to neuromuscular disorders such as cranial nerve deficits, tongue paralysis and paralysis or inflammation of the muscles responsible for chewing. Rabies and certain brain-related disorders may also contribute to the onset of the condition.

Diagnosis

If you suspect your cat has dysphagia or trouble swallowing, take your pet to the vet for a medical examination immediately. Provide your vet with an in-depth medical history.

Your vet may also ask you about the onset and type of symptoms and any possible events that may have led to the disorder, such as a recent injury, infection or disease.

During the examination, it is critical that your vet can separate vomiting from dysphagia. Dysphagia doesn’t involve abdominal contractions that occur with vomiting.

The physical test is followed by a complete blood profile, a chemical blood profile, and a urinalysis. Your vet will order these tests to check whether your cat has kidney disease, an infectious disease, or muscle injury.

Your vet may draw blood to run a few lab tests. These will help rule out inflammatory disorders of the muscles involved in chewing.

Examples of such disorders include immune-mediated disorders, masticatory muscle myositis, myasthenia gravis, hypothyroidism, and hyperadrenocorticism.

X-ray and ultrasound images of your cat’s skull and neck will help locate any abnormalities, such as masses in the pharynx. Your vet may take tissue samples following this if required.

If a brain tumor is suspected, an MRI and CT scan may be employed to determine the location of the tumor as well as its severity.

Treatment

Treatment often depends on the cause. For example, if difficulty swallowing is caused by an abnormality of the mouth, treatment may involve helping your cat eat by placing a ball of food at the back of its throat.

If your cat has cricopharyngeal dysphagia or pharyngeal dysphagia, your vet may advise helping your cat eat by lifting its head and neck while it swallows its food.

A stomach tube may be needed if your cat is not able to maintain a healthy weight. If a foreign body is detected during diagnosis, surgery may be needed to remove it.

Nutritional support is critical during treatment. You may need to switch your cat’s food consistency as well as its position during feeding.

Apart from a feeding tube, on some occasions, intravenous feeding may be needed depending on the cause of the condition. Your vet may also prescribe antibiotics to combat or prevent any bacterial infection.

Surgery will be needed if your cat has a jaw or palate fracture, dental disease or upper airway abnormalities. Your vet may also prescribe corticosteroids for inflammation of the mouth tissues.

cat swallowing hard and coughing

Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs cause gagging, gulping, retching, and hacking sounds in cats. They can be very unpleasant for the cat.

If inappropriately managed, hairballs can lead to intestinal blockages, which can result in severe health conditions. Although most cats will never stop grooming themselves, there are ways to control hairballs.

Symptoms

A hairball problem will result in your cat trying to gag it out. This is often followed by vomiting the hairball out.

Call your vet if you notice the following symptoms as they could indicate a potentially lethal blockage:

  • Ongoing gagging, vomiting, hacking, or retching with no success in producing a hairball
  • Poor appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

As the hairball blockage grows, you may notice swelling or a lump around the stomach or throat.

Causes

Cats have tiny hook-like structures on their tongues that help catch dead, loose hair on their bodies. When a cat grooms itself, it typically swallows any hair that has been caught by its tongue.

In most cases, the hair passes with no issues. However, some hair may remain in the stomach, accumulate over time and form a hairball.

Usually, a cat will vomit the hairball out to remove it from its body. Hairballs are thin and elongated. Cats have a narrow esophagus, so the hairball will form into a tube-like structure on its way out.

Hairballs are most common in long-haired breeds, such as Maine Coons and Persians. Hairballs may also be more common during the summer as warm weather can cause a cat to shed more.

Cats that shed a lot or groom themselves excessively are also more susceptible to hairballs because they swallow more of their own fur.

Even if your cat did not have any hairballs when it was a kitten, it can develop hairballs later on. This is normal as cats become more skilled in grooming as they grow older and are thus, likely to catch more fur.

Diagnosis

On your veterinary visit, expect to answer questions regarding your cat’s medical history, as well as the frequency of hairballs

Your cat is coughing up hairballs when you notice any vomit containing pieces of hair, along with fluid and food. Symptoms such as loss of appetite, frequent vomiting and lethargy may indicate an intestinal blockage.

Your vet may order radiographs and a blood test to determine whether your cat is suffering from an intestinal blockage. Surgical removal is the only option if your cat has a lethal case of intestinal blockage due to hairballs.

Home Treatment Options

Given a cat’s finicky nature, especially towards its demanding grooming routine, there isn’t much you can do to prevent hairballs completely. However, you can reduce the number of hairballs your cat produces.

Brush Your Cat Regularly

Brushing or combing your cat every day, especially if it is a long-hair breed is one of the most effective ways of minimizing hairballs in cats.

By reducing the amount of loose fur on your cat’s body, you’re also reducing the fur that ends up inside its stomach. Brushing is also a fun way for an owner to build a strong relationship with their cat.

If you are having trouble getting your cat used to regular brushing, try gradually incorporating a few minutes of it every day until your cat gets accustomed to it.

Alternatively, you can take your cat to a professional groomer for a haircut, especially if it’s a long-haired breed.

Manage Overgrooming

If you suspect your cat’s hairball issue is a result of excessive grooming, pay attention to how your cat is feeling.

Some causes of stress in cats include a change in a litter box or cat bed position, more guests, a new pet, or a dominant cat in a multi-cat home.

According to the Frontiers in Veterinary Science, excessive grooming is often a sign of stress as grooming is an effective method of self-soothing.

Overgrooming can cause large, bare patches on your cat’s skin. Whether your cat’s compulsive grooming is a result of stress or something else, you can divert its attention away from licking its coat with a different activity.

Teach your cat to play with a new interactive toy and make sure you include at least 15 minutes of one-on-one time every day to reduce stress.

Specialized Hairball Formula

Many pet food companies offer hairball-reducing cat foods. These foods often contain more fiber to help improve your cat’s coat, reduce shedding, and facilitate the movement of hairballs through the digestive tract.

You can also talk to your vet about using a hairball product, such as a mild laxative that can help your cat pass the hairball much more at ease.

Drink More Water

Although making your cat drink more water will not cure its hairball problem, it will help keep its digestive tract in good condition.

Water is essential for the passage of stools as it adds more lubrication. Not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration of your cat’s stools, resulting in constipation and difficulty removing hair.

cat makes weird noise when grooming

Feline Asthma

Although the definition of asthma is a subject for debate, most researchers and clinicians agree that feline asthma is a result of an allergic reaction to allergens that have been inhaled. These particles activate a cat’s immune system, stimulating the production of specific antibodies.

According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, about 1% to 5% of cats have feline asthma.

Feline asthma can cause hacking, gulping, wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing in cats. Common triggers include dust, pollen, smoke, mold, fumes, aerosols, and fragrances.

Sometimes emotional stress, changes in weather conditions and heat and cold can also trigger asthma attacks.

When a cat inhales an allergen, its immune system recognizes it, leading to a series of events that bring numerous types of immune cells into its airways. This results in inflammation, swelling, irritation, and constriction of a cat’s respiratory tract.

An allergic reaction can cause the diameter of a cat’s airways to reduce, which further leads to the accumulation of mucus.

Together, these events can restrict airflow, resulting in spasms of the airways and breathing difficulties in a cat.

Risk Factors

Certain breeds, such as Burmese, Siamese, and other oriental breeds are more susceptible to asthma.

Asthma typically occurs in middle-aged cats between the ages of 2 and 8, according to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

Signs

The most common symptoms include, gagging, wheezing and coughing. In most cases, this cough may resemble a hairball cough, which is why many owners mistake an asthma attack for the latter.

However, hairballs are often accompanied by retching and vomiting, which are typically absent in the case of feline asthma. Hairballs are also more gastrointestinal in origin, whereas asthma is a respiratory condition.

When a cat with asthma coughs, it will usually extend its head and neck in a squatted position. It can sound moist or dry. Some cats with asthma may stick their tongue out slightly during coughing. Most of the time, it appears as if the cat is coughing up some mucus and then swallowing it.

Other symptoms include lethargy, decreased activity, breathing difficulties, increased breathing effort, and exhaustion even from normal activities.

Some cats may exhibit open-mouth breathing if their condition is severe as they may be having trouble moving air from their lungs.

In extreme cases, feline asthma may cause death due to asphyxiation as the cat loses its ability to breathe completely.

The above signs may occur spontaneously or may be induced when you lightly press your cat’s throat region.

Diagnosis

No test can identify feline asthma. Your vet will utilize your cat’s medical history, gathered information and various tests to diagnose the condition.

If your vet thinks that your cat has feline asthma, they will consider your cat’s history, along with imaging studies and microscopic analysis of cells from your cat’s airway secretion. On some occasions, allergy testing and blood work may be required as well.

Your vet may also use radiographs, bronchoscopy and computed tomography (CT) to check and assess your cat’s lung condition.

If your cat has asthma, a radiograph may help indicate bright branching patterns along the airways that are characteristic of feline asthma. The patterning is formed by inflammatory cells that have accumulated.

The radiograph may also help indicate any changes in lung size. Constricted airways caused by asthma can trap air inside the lungs; overinflating them and making them appear larger.

CT scans that employ X-rays to produce 3D views of the body can also help in the diagnosis of asthma and distinguish it from other conditions that cause airway problems in felines.

Your vet may also use bronchoscopy, where a flexible camera will be passed through the mouth and into the airways. Bronchoscopy is typically performed with general anesthesia or heavy sedation and is used to analyze the inside of the airways and collect cell samples.

An asthmatic cat will show distinct changes in the lining of the airways. Furthermore, cell analysis of the airways may also show high numbers of inflammatory cells. However, these distinguishing factors may be present in other respiratory diseases as well.

Other medical conditions that can result in similar symptoms to feline asthma include chronic bronchitis, parasitic invasion into the lungs, lungworm infestation, and other infectious diseases that cause pneumonia.

Treatment

Conventional medical treatment is based on two main drug types: corticosteroids and bronchodilators. Prednisolone, oral prednisone and inhaled forms of corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory drugs designed to reduce inflammation of the airways.

Corticosteroids may cause side effects such as:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased urination
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Lower resistance to infection
  • Behavioral changes

Bronchodilators are utilized to open the airways and are taken in oral and inhaled forms. They cause minimal side effects.

However, bronchodilators should never be used on their own as they may exacerbate the condition. A special inhalant mask may have to be employed while administering this class of medication.

Your vet may also prescribe antihistamines and anti-leukotrienes. A holistic vet may use alternative medicine to treat feline asthma. Oxygen therapy will be used if a cat experiences an emergency inside a veterinary clinic.

Prognosis

In most cases, feline asthma is a progressive problem that doesn’t improve substantially with time. There is no true cure for asthma, and a cat may experience flare-ups every now and then with varying intensities.

However, monitoring your cat’s respiratory effort, using medication when needed and keeping a lookout for coughing can make life easier.

Don’t worry about occasional gulping in cats. Check for other related signs and symptoms when cats gulp when swallowing regularly. This will make it easier to determine if your cat has dysphagia, hairballs, or asthma.