trouble swallowing in cats
Cat Health and Wellness

Why is My Cat Gulping When Swallowing?

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

What causes cats to make gulping sounds while swallowing? If your cat is always trying to swallow, along with other symptoms such as coughing, gagging or drooling, it may have a condition called dysphagia. Not treating dysphagia may result in rapid weight loss due to the cat’s inability to eat.  Sometimes hairballs or feline asthma may also lead to gulping sounds in cats.

Regardless of the cause, if you notice your cat behaving unusually, having difficulty eating, or gulping or gagging during meals, take it to the vet immediately. Not treating the underlying cause of the problem may lead to further complications and make treatment far more difficult.

What Causes Gulping in Cats When Swallowing?

Numerous conditions can cause gulping in cats during 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 gulping in cats. However, if gulping is frequent, it may be a sign of feline asthma, which is commonly mistaken for hairballs.

1) 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 due to 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 in long-term patients.

Feline Dysphagia 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.

Oral dysphagia, or 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 suffering from 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 of Feline Dysphagia

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.

cat swallowing a lot and not eating

How is Feline Dysphagia Diagnosed?

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 will be 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 a 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.

Feline Dysphagia Treatment

With dysphagia, treatment often depends on the underlying 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 your pet’s 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.

How to Manage Feline Dysphagia

During treatment, it is crucial that your cat has a healthy body weight. If you are feeding your cat by hand or if your cat is not using a stomach tube, make sure you offer it several tiny meals spread out throughout the day.

Feed your cat while it is sitting in an upright position and maintain this position for 10 to 15 minutes following its meal to avoid aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is a condition that takes place when food is inhaled inside the lungs.

Signs and symptoms of aspiration pneumonia include:

  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Depression
  • Nasal discharge
  • Fever

If you notice these signs, seek veterinary attention for immediate treatment.

cat swallowing hard and coughing

2) Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs typically cause gagging, gulping, retching and hacking sounds in cats. They can be unpleasant for the cat, as well as the person who has to clean the hairballs up.

However, if not appropriately managed, hairballs can lead to intestinal blockages, which can result in severe health conditions. Although most cats will never stop grooming themselves, there are many ways you can control hairballs.

How to Identify Hairballs in Cats

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 of Hairballs in Cats

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 not round, but are thin and elongate. Cats have a narrow esophagus. Therefore, 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 fur.

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

How Are Hairballs Diagnosed in Cats?

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 and should be treated immediately.

Some of these symptoms may indicate a different condition; therefore, your vet may perform a physical examination to rule out other diseases. Keep a log of your cat’s vomiting and hairball production, in addition to any other symptoms your cat may be showing.

Your vet may order radiographs and blood test to determine whether your cat is suffering from an intestinal blockage. If you notice any signs of intestinal blockage, take your cat to the vet immediately as this condition could be life-threatening if left untreated. Surgical removal is the only option if your cat is suffering from a lethal case of intestinal blockage caused by hairballs.

How to Treat Hairballs At Home

Given a cat’s finicky nature, especially towards its demanding grooming routine, there isn’t much you can do to prevent hairballs in your cat completely. However, there are ways 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 build companionship 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

According to the Frontiers in Veterinary Science, overgrooming is often a sign of stress in cats as grooming is an effective method of self-soothing. 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, an increased number of guests, a new pet or a dominant cat in a multi-cat home.

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 by training it to enjoy 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.

It also helps to place multiple toys around the house that your cat can play with on its own.

Use a 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.

Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Water Intake

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 that was consumed during grooming.

Therefore, make sure your cat is given fresh water every day. If your cat is not drinking enough water or is constipated, set up an appointment with your vet to determine a suitable solution. Your vet may recommend using a hairball preventative lubricant to reduce hairballs and increase the passage of hairballs through the intestinal tract. An example of a lubricating product for hairballs is Laxatone.

Recovering from Hairballs

You will need a follow-up appointment to ascertain how well your cat is responding to the treatment. Moreover, it is crucial that you set up a follow-up if your cat’s hairball was surgically removed.

Your vet will assess your cat’s progress and healing and provide you with instructions on how you can prevent hairballs in your cat in the future.

cat makes weird noise when grooming

3) Feline Asthma

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

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 for Feline Asthma

Asthma typically occurs in middle-aged cats between the ages of 2 and 8 – according to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. Certain breeds, such as Burmese, Siamese, and other oriental breeds are more susceptible to asthma.

Symptoms of Feline Asthma

Not all cats are affected the same way when suffering from feline asthma. However, the most common symptoms of asthma in cats 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 possible symptoms of feline asthma 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.

How is Feline Asthma Diagnosed?

No test can identify feline asthma. Your vet will primarily 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 in that area.

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.

Ruling Out Other Conditions

While diagnosing asthma in cats, it is critical to rule out other health conditions that may lead to similar signs, symptoms, and test results. 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.

Note that the drugs that are used in the treatment of the above conditions may not be suitable for a cat suffering from asthma. Therefore, careful diagnosis is required to rule out the condition and determine appropriate treatment measures.

Treatment for Feline Asthma

Conventional medical treatment for asthma in cats is generally 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 – with some being severer than others. However, monitoring your cat’s respiratory effort, using medication when needed and keeping a lookout for coughing can help in making sure your cat lives happily for a long time.

Can Diet Affect Feline Asthma?

Diet is rarely considered a potential trigger for feline asthma. However, some users have seen positive results in asthmatic cats after switching from grain-based and dry products to grain-free canned food. You may use commercially sold, balanced, grain-free canned food, homemade grain-free raw cat food or a combination of both.

Note that not all cats may show improvement in their symptoms after making this switch. However, a grain-free diet is much more nutritionally balanced for cats and may improve their overall health.