Coughing is a normal reflex and it is our body’s way to expel irritants from the throat, airways and lungs. It works the same way in cats too, although coughing is not frequent in this species. When a cat coughs during or shortly after a meal, it may be a sign of problems involving either the larynx or the esophagus.
To understand this better, here is a simplified diagram of a cat’s anatomy showing these organs.
The trachea, commonly known as the windpipe, is the passageway of air coming from the nose going down on its way to the lungs. The esophagus, or the foodpipe, is the muscular organ that serves as the passageway of food from the mouth to the stomach. The voicebox, scientifically called the larynx, is an organ located behind the base of the tongue and it has an associated structure called the “epiglottis” which is flap-like. This flap folds upwards when the cat is breathing to open the windpipe and folds downwards during swallowing to guide the food to the foodpipe and preventing food from entering the windpipe.
If the voicebox is diseased, the flap may not close properly when food is swallowed such that pieces of the food may enter the windpipe during or after swallowing, irritating the windpipe and triggering the cough reflex. On the other hand, diseases involving the foodpipe may interefere with it’s function to move food from the mouth to the stomach such that food may remain in the foodpipe and may pass back to the mouth and go to the windpipe. In either case, food particles entering the windpipe are considered by the body as foreign material and if they reach the lungs, it may result into a serious complication known as Aspiration Pneumonia wherein there will be inflammation in the lungs.
So when your cat frequently coughs during or after meals, a veterinary office visit is a must. The veterinarian has to do a thorough history and physical examination of your cat. Additional test procedures may be required to determine exactly the origin of the problem that is triggering the cough so that treatment can be instituted accordingly. While it is understandable that a coughing cat can distress it’s human parents, please do refrain from self-medicating your pet cats especially using over-the-counter medicines because at the very least it may not work and will just be a waste of resources or at the very worst, it may do your cat more harm than good.
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