Welcome to our regular “Ask the Cat Doc With Dr. Lynn Bahr” segment! Once a month, Dr. Bahr answers as many of your questions as she can, and you can leave new questions for her in a comment.

Dr. Bahr graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 1991. Unlike most veterinarians, she did not grow up knowing that she would become a veterinarian. “It was a cat who got me interested in the practice and I am forever grateful to him,” said Dr. Bahr. Over the course of her veterinary career, Dr. Bahr found that the lifestyle of cats has changed dramatically. As the lifestyle of cats has changed, so did Dr. Bahr’s client education. In addition to finding medical solutions, she also encourages owners to enrich their home environments so that their cats can live long, happy, and healthy lives.

This new understanding led Dr. Bahr to combine her passion for strengthening the human-animal bond with her veterinary background and knowledge of what animals need and want to start her own solution-based cat product company, Dezi & Roo, inspired by two cats of the same names.

For more information about Dezi & Roo and their unique and innovative cat toys, please visit Dezi and Roo on Etsy.

Do you have a question for Dr. Bahr?
Leave it in a comment and she’ll answer it in next month’s column!

Non-productive, deep cough

Question for Dr. Bahr – My 9 year old tabby has a non-productive, deep guttural cough. It was nearly daily Feb-April, then stopped, then started again a couple of weeks ago. My local vet said she doesn’t have any apparent signs of disease and gave me a cough suppressant, which I gave her once and she immediately through up, but the coughing subsided so I didn’t pursue it further. The latest bout is much less pronounced, not as sustained and I’ve only heard it in the morning. Any clues or more pertinent questions I can ask my vet? – Doris Cramer

Hi Doris,

I appreciate you writing in about your coughing cat and thank you for being concerned about it. Coughing is not normal and always demands further work-up. That is because effective treatment depends on the diagnosis.

So, let’s talk about why cats cough.

Coughing is a symptom of an underlying medical condition and there are many that are known to cause cats to cough. Common ones include asthma, lung worms, heartworms, bronchitis, bacterial or viral infections, and to a lesser degree heart disease and tumors. Fortunately, most of these problems are treatable.

I ask my clients to catch the coughing episodes on video if possible. It is always beneficial for me to see exactly what these coughing spells look like. Getting a good history regarding frequency is necessary as well. Hopefully your cat is on heartworm prevention which would eliminate heartworms and other parasites as a possible culprit.  If not, then a fecal and heartworm test would be warranted. Even though these tests give limited information and negative results aren’t that useful, a positive one would certainly help point us in the right direction. If the results are negative, then regular heartworm prevention and a broad spectrum deworming that is effective against lungworms would be indicated.

Next, I would request chest x-rays and routine bloodwork to help fill in more pieces of the puzzle. One of the best ways to try to determine why your cat is coughing is with x-rays and it really is a necessary diagnostic for evaluating the lungs and chest cavity. The findings would then direct us to the proper treatment options.

If asthma is suspected, a short course of steroids is often prescribed to help decrease inflammation and alleviate the cough. We use inhalant treatments if long term therapy is needed after that. Infections are typically managed with antibiotics and viral infections with anti-viral medications. Antihistamines for allergies and bronchodilators to open up airways are other possible ways of reducing symptoms. There are multiple treatment options for cats that cough, but again, it is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis in order to determine the proper course of therapy.

If your current veterinarian is unable to discover the cause of your kitty’s cough you can ask for a referral to a specialist. Coughing is a symptom of an underlying condition and getting to the bottom of it is essential to helping eliminate your cat’s discomfort.  Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions.

Extremely bad smelling breath

I have a young female totoise/tabby from the shelter who had good smelling breath when I got her a couple years ago, but that has developed extremely bad smelling breath and I’m concerned about her dental hygiene. She was very underweight when I got her so i fed her lots and gave her wet food (Natures Calling, Organix) and over the months her breath got worse and worse until it was extremely bad. I assume she had only been getting dry food before and attributed the bad breath to the wet food. I phased it out and and put her on dry and her breath improved. I now have her on half raw and half dry and it has gotten very bad once more. I don’t want to put her on only dry food because I read that it is not really good for cats. I’ve been brushing her teeth but it doesn’t help much. Last summer a vet misdiagnosed interstitial cystitis for a UTI and gave her cefovecin and her breath incidentally improved quite a lot but became bad again. Do you know why this is happening and what I should try next? Thank you. – Mason

Hi Mason,

Thank you for suspecting something is not right with your cat’s breath. I would agree with you.

The only time bad breath is normal is when you smell it immediately after your cat has eaten and what you smell is the food.  Otherwise, it is commonly indicative of something more serious.  Medical conditions like gingivitis, periodontitis, a tooth root abscess, oral tumors, diabetes, liver and kidney disease can all present with foul smelling breath. So, it is important that your cat be seen by a competent veterinarian in order to determine which of these conditions is affecting your kitty.

It is doubtful that the odor is food related, and I strongly encourage you take your cat to a professional.  It is likely that bloodwork will be necessary and if all is normal, then a dental cleaning will be recommended. Many cities have veterinary dentists and you should look for one in your area. If you prefer to use your regular veterinarian, make sure they have dental x-ray equipment to evaluate the roots under the gums. It is a very important part of the procedure.

You will be amazed at how much better your cat will eat and feel once her problem is resolved. And, you will enjoy not having to smell her bad breath anymore.

Thanks for reaching out. I hope to hear back from you letting me know what the cause of her bad breath turned out to be.

12 Comments on Ask the Cat Doc: Coughing Cat, Cat with Bad Breath, and More

  1. This is Mary Byrd Brown again. I just wrote you about my Apollo’s cough when he purrs. Just wanted to say that I am sorry for all if the ypos and incorrect words! I dictate due to the pain and arthritis in my hands and fingers these days. I always proof before I send but this time I sent the message before I had a chance to prove my text. I hope you can make sense out of it. If you have any questions I’m happy to answer them. I’m also happy to clarify any of my boo boos.

    Thank you!
    “Byrdie” & Apollo

  2. Hello Doctor! In 2017, I met a cat who was barely 1 year old and was hungry, full of fleas, and obviously lost or abandoned. I rescued him, and he rescued me. I love every fiber of his beautiful Being. He is a very secure guy His name is Apollo. He was also wearing a collar when I found him that was so tight and so small I am really not sure if he would have survived much longer.

    I took him to my vet immediately and after a few visits and workup she declared him a “healthy cat;” however, I have a concern that causes me anxiety .

    Apollo coughs only when he purrs; otherwise, he does not cough. I asked my vet about this and she surmised that, perhaps, he has a herpes virus that reactivates every once in awhile. I’ve always kept a journal on my kitties as I treat them with integrated medicine including homeopathics. I am not licensed but I studied and worked under a very well-known homeopathic fat to really helps my girls. They have since moved on but my one girl I had cancer of the mouth and homeopathics gave her six extra months of life. Anyway, I digress.

    I checked my journal and poured over my notes and I did not see an entry about Apollo’s coffee until 2019, although it may have been earlier. I am wondering about several possibilities causing this cough when he purrs.

    First, we live in a 94 year old Cottage that is on a bog and is damp and has mold. The cottage is very old and has that old house dust also. I am chronically ill with a decades-missed diagnosis of advanced and disseminated Lyme disease along with the tick-borne coinfections and autoimmune disorders left in its wake. I have difficulty keeping up with cleaning and I have financially devastated I’m fighting this Long Haul disease so I don’t have anyone cleaning for me anymore. A short I wonder about asthma. But wouldn’t he be coughing more often, not just when he purrs?

    Secondly, I must address something that every human and four-legged has a challenge with: Stress. We are also under a lot of stress here as the owners of this Cottage and the five acres it sits on wish to liquidate what is part of a family trust. That means we have to go and I cannot afford to move anywhere without help from the county which may take years. I’ve always been isolated and I’m pretty much okay with it as I used to be in the public eye but since covid I’m extremely isolated and have very little support or help to get through my days. I know he feels the stress and I work hard and not let it affect him. Practically have an apothecary here for him and being an empath who also survived a lot of drama, I get his PTSD because I have it too his extraordinary really sensitive and all I have to do is look at him and I know actually not only how he is doing but also how I am doing. I always say that kitties are our barometers. So there’s the stress factor which doesn’t help anything.

    Finally, excluding stress and the possibility of respiratory issues, I am wondering about that tight collar that he had on him. It left an indentation on him after I took it off that lasted maybe 6 months. In short it took a long time for that indentation to disappear. Could have caused damage to his windpipe or his trachea? He was very young. That collar look like a kitten size collar. And I just have to bring up again that the vet guessed he was barely a year old because he had no tartar on his teeth whatsoever. And now that I’ve seen him grow up I know he was young because I can look at pictures and see the difference. Sometimes he has a little difficulty eating. I bought him we’re going to make bowls that are tilted to help him. He doesn’t vomit a whole lot. It’s rare actually unless he ate too fast or consumed a bad cricket.:-)

    He is my life, doctor. I’m 60 years old and I’ve lost my career as a professional, touring singer songwriter and musician. When I got sick my career came to a screeching halt and I also lost my fiance. And Friends disappear when you get sick too. My family is not capable of giving me the emotional support I need and I had to learn to grow and accept that. We all have different capacities. My Apollo my dear sweet boy, is my family now. And I hope I can live out his years with him. I am not sure some days how long I am meant for this world because my body is systemically annihilated from this disease.

    I am only learning disability and, though I am exceedingly grateful for it, it does not meet my expenses or the continue to increase in cost of living. Nevertheless, I put him first and try to feed him the best quality food possible. I feed him a lot of freeze dried raw food that I hydrate. I made the mistake of feeding him some dry kibble sometimes(this is the food he has trouble swallowing sometimes( and I feel guilty about that. But I have huge need for a lot of sleep and I don’t want him to miss a meal so that’s when I leave out sometimes. I give him fresh, cold distilled water three times per day. I brush him. I give him a lot of holistic remedies that really do help him. I do the best I possibly can and some days I don’t do so well, but I always try to make up for it. I love him. I love cats.

    One last thing. I have not taken Apollo to the vet since covid arrived. For one, he has PTSD, and I just cannot leave him alone for a vet visit. They were requiring the pets we left off curbside. Secondly oh, my line positions feel like the vaccine is contraindicated for me and while my immune system as a very narrow margin I am waiting to be inoculated. So I’m very worried about exposure. I see a traditional veterinarian as I work with both sides of Medicine. However, I do want to avoid stress and Trauma for Apollo. And I’d like to try to avoid invasive procedures if possible.

    His cough really really concerns me and I also noticed sometimes I can stop it if I gently massage his throat. And if I pick him up so we standing on his back feet. Strange but seems to work sometimes.

    I don’t think I can bear losing him. I’ve lost so much and so many people in my life. I’ve been doing a lot of drama. If I can delay one more loss as long as I can I’m a very blessed person. He blesses me everyday with his presence, is gratitude, discomfort, is playfulness, yes love, his wisdom and his courage. He endured a lot as a kitten. I don’t know what happened to this little fellow but whatever it was really affected him. He is quite edgy but so improved as I work with him on it every day.

    Anything you can do to help us is greatly appreciated and considered a blessing. Right now I don’t have cash for a vet visit anyway. I’m trying to find someone to loan me some money temporarily so I can take him back in. But like I said I’ve already explored this matter with veterinarian. Thank you in advance for your time and your energy. I know energy is one of our most valuable resources.

    Mary Byrd Brown (aka “Byrdie” )
    & Apollo

    • Even though Dr. Bahr usually doesn’t answer questions from past columns (you left your question on a column from 2019), she has agreed to address your question in this month’s column. The column will be published on Monday 6/27, so keep an eye out for it!

  3. I was moving my cat out of the way and he started coughing and wouldn’t stop for awhile and when I picked him to look at him all I can smell is a dead animal and it seemed like it was coming from his mouth but also from his fur, like it was all over him

  4. I have a rescue cat who is 2 years old who has offensive breath and an occasional cough. I have had her for 5 weeks now any advice please?

  5. So I got my kitten a couple of months ago and it was healthy as I can see. I was wondering if when should I start brushing its teeth as I want to take care of its health as I can.

  6. My EX feral Tuxedo cat presented with an eye problem….running, puffy, swollen eye JUST the left eye. After several medications and several trips to a Feline Ophthalmologist.with NO success I sough out a Holistic vet who put him on natural liquids. Vitamins and extracts, which eventually got his eye back to normal. I was told that he had a hole in his tooth and needed an cleaning, xrays and extraction to the tune of $1000. I couldn’t afford that. So it wasn’t done. He started having blood dripping down his chest from his mouth so I took him to a new vet that told me there was NO hole in his teeth but he had many mouth ulcers. She gave him a shot of steroids and long lasting (30) days, antibiotics. His mouth is better and he has regained the weight he’d lost and he is frisky and back to his old normal self. BUT his breath is terrible. I can NOT see any tartar or build up, but he will NOT let me brush his teeth. He is a big boy ( 17.5 lbs) and I don’t want to be torn up. HELP please.

  7. This is for Doris. I DO hope you’ve had an X-ray for your Tabby. I don’t mean to scare you, but here is our experience. My calico had a cough for a couple of months – I was thinking it was allergy related, as I was having the same experience. The X-ray showed a mass in her lung. I was able to afford the surgery which removed a part of her lung. (I would eat beans for the rest of my life, but hey…)
    We had another 4 years with her until the cancer came back in the form of a tumor on the top of her head. The hard part was letting her go even though the only thing irritating her was the itching and bleeding.
    Please do a thorough exam if you haven’t already.

  8. Hi Dr Bahr – We rescued a feral cat with extensive open & festering wounds in early Spring. Our vet wanted to euthanize her but since she was still eating/drinking I wanted to give her a chance. Her skin had broken down so badly he couldn’t stitch together any of the wounds. The skin tore under the tension of the sutures.

    She received a broad spectrum antibiotic injection and , after a week with no apparent change, I also asked that he try another form of antibiotics in pill form. In the interim, I was clearing out stinking pus and obvious infection routinely, including creating drainage openings for subcutaneous cysts. (I have pics but will spare you the gory detail.)

    I finally went to plan c and covered the wounds – about 10 of them along her back and sides with Manuka Honey. After 4 days, I removed the bandages and noted significant healing. I retreated a couple of wounds but they too cleared completely within a week. It took about 5-6 weeks for her coat to grow back about 75%.

    Now, I am seeing fur loss in a few of the same areas and some minor irritation possibly from grooming. I immediately put some honey on it and the redness decreased but is not fully gone. The vet put her back on antibiotics (oral) but the hair loss is essentially the same if not 10-20% worse in a couple of spots. She does lick the area somewhat frequently or scratch at it with her back foot nail but neither action seems obsessive.

    I talked to the neighbor who first noticed she was ill several months ago and he tells me that he thought she was excessively grooming the general area and that he hadn’t see any immediate evidence of a puncture/slash wound. He just noticed that she seemed get sicker and then noticed sores on her back. (Yes, I would like to smack him but just glad we caught her.)

    Do you have any sense of what’s happening? If only to give me a path to have a deeper discussion with our vet? Could it be adrenal? There’s no evidence of mites, fleas or ticks. She tends to stay within sight of us at all times so is rarely out so not likely to tangle with anyone. (The feral life is not one she chose apparently!) We do have other cats and a dog and none of them seem to have anything wrong other than being spoiled.

    Your observations an/or insights would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Jane

  9. My 18 year old cat’s hair has started to mat up! Is she needing something not provided in her food perhaps? She does not like anyone fussing about with her so it is hard to treat her. I have cut a few of the clumps of hair but now there are a lot of them. I brush her several times a day as she wants to be brushed. Her back along the backbone is loaded with mats. Any suggestions are helpful. I do not shampoo her and she used to groom herself a good deal but now she only does it a bit that I see. She only spends a bit of time outside and is on a leash when she goes. She likes to eat grass. Thanks.

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