What We Thought Was a Hairball…Wasn’t.

by Melissa R. on May 12, 2010

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Zoe lounging on the bed

Zoe lounging on the bed

This is a cautionary tale for anybody with cats. We all have heard about hairballs and cats – right? The hacking they do to “cough up” a hairball is well known. I even recall an extremely humorous scene in Shrek 2! However, what can be confused as a hairball cough could actually be something much more serious. Here’s my story.

Last summer we started noticing one of our older cats, Zoe, coughing. We thought it was a hairball, as she was a fastidious groomer, with plenty of hair. So we shrugged it off. After awhile, I thought perhaps I should try to help this process and got her some Hairball Remedy. Zoe didn’t care much for this, but I tried my best to get her to take some of it each day. I also bought some cat food formulated for hairball prevention. We started brushing her often (which she loved). However, she continued to try to cough up a hairball…or so we thought. 

As the coughing continued, we slowly…so slowly…noticed small changes in Zoe. First it was MORE coughing, then I started to realize there was in fact, never a hairball to be seen. This perplexed me, because surely, after all this, we would have seen a hairball SOMEWHERE. Then suddenly we noticed she seemed to have slightly labored breathing, along with what seemed to be an odd weight loss, although she still retained quite a lot of fat. This startled me into reality, and I took her to the vet immediately. Something was definitely not right. I thought perhaps this hairball issue had become stuck or clogged or something!

At the veterinarian’s office, Zoe was x-rayed and examined, and blood work done. The results that came back were less than encouraging, and there was definitely no simple hairball problem.

Zoe

Zoe

Zoe’s blood work was horrible – I cannot recall the exact details but things weren’t good. Her x-ray showed massive amounts of fluid in her chest. So much so that they couldn’t see much at all to see if something else like a tumor was in there. Her liver was 1/2 the size it was supposed to, along with a list of other problems. We were obviously quite upset. How long had this been going on? All this time we thought she had a simple hairball and it was something so much more serious! We promptly got Zoe on a diuretic, which helps decrease fluid in the chest. Our hope was that we could get it decreased enough to get another x-ray and see what was going on exactly.

Zoe seemed to perk up on her diuretic, and the coughing, while still there, seemed to lessen. She still had some slightly labored breathing, but all in all she seemed to be doing better. Suddenly though, in the span of about a week, she spiraled downward quickly and there was nothing we could do to help her. All we could do was send her to the Rainbow Bridge to meet up with her brother Porsche (who had, coincidentally, passed away only 3 months prior….).

It is a sad story, I know. Heartbreaking to share, but I felt I needed to so that others can learn from our hard lessons. Don’t be afraid to bring your pet into the vet for any small thing, because you just never know when it might be something serious.
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About the author: Melissa is a devoted pet owner with several cats: Kai, Cirrhi & Ritter; and the newest addition, Emme a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Melissa is an avid dog agility enthusiast, and hopes her new pup will someday be an agility champion! She is a Graphic Designer and Project Coordinator for the DrsFosterSmith.com and LiveAquaria.com websites. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Michigan State University and is a lifelong pet lover and owner. See more articles by Melissa R.

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Pet Care: Top 10 Pet Care Posts of 2010
December 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

brittany May 12, 2010 at 7:34 am

I’m so sorry for your loss.

JulieD May 12, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I’m sorry for your loss as well. :(

Jen May 12, 2010 at 9:33 pm

How sad! So sorry that you lost Zoe. Was it bronchitis or something of that nature? Thank you for the warning…

Cristin Q May 14, 2010 at 9:08 am

I’m sorry…poor kitty. Did she have Bordetella? I know cats can get that as well as dogs. My dog had it, and all he did was cough with it. Again though, I’m sorry to hear that.

Kristina May 14, 2010 at 9:31 am

Thank you for posting this story–cats are so good at hiding their problems that it’s hard to tell when something is seriously wrong. It’s good to have a reminder to watch any symptoms very closely. :( I’m so sorry for your losses.

Mary May 18, 2010 at 8:05 am

it is always so hard to lose a pet. pets are part of our family. And they can’t tell us what’s wrong. We just have to be intuitive enough to try to figure it out so we can help the vet. Sometimes its even worse when all the tests come back normal and there are still no answers.

Joy Dixon May 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm

I was so saddened to read your story about Zoe mainly because Zoe looks just like my Cat, Alachua (Alee) for short. Alee and Zoe share so much of the same coloring and when I read your story and saw Zoe’s picture, it just made me so sad. But for those of us who believe in little things like “Kitty Heaven” , we know that Zoe is definitely there and no longer in any pain.

God Bless You in your time of healing and may you find peace and strength in the people and things you know and love. Email me anytime !

Sincerely, Joy
Bonita Springs, Florida

Nancy Moss November 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

I had a beautifull Tabby cat named Rascall that i found several years ago on a parking lot where i used to work. Didn’t know if i wanted to bring him home or not but when i picked him up and he wrapped his paws around my neck i knew that it was love at first sight. No questions asked he stole my heart. When he was younger my boyfriend and i would put him in the blankets and throw him up in the air and catch him and he wanted more. Oh how he loved bubbles. He would jump up in the air and try and pop them.He would even cry if he couldn’t get them. He had a kinked tail and you could touch the top of his head with his tail. When i would be in the tub taking a bath he would stand up on the tub for me to make his head and face wet. I would always say you look like Spike Lee becuse his fur would stand up in a spike look. Then he wanted his legs and feet wet also. He wanted to drink from the sink and i would turn the water on for him. He would take his foot and splash the water. And oh he was so proud of his food bowl. That was his pride and joy. And oh how he hated to go outside. He never wanted to leave his home at all. He would jump up on the bed and climb under the covers and stay for a little while then he would leave.Then him and my other cat named scapper would play with each other. Last Saturday night he was laying with me on the couch under the covers for a little while. Then when i got up to go to bed he led me to his food bowl with his little meow he has. Little did i know that when i woke up Sunday morning he had passed away in his sleep. Now i am having such a hard time dealing with his passing. i used to dance with him and oh how he hated that but he would always let me do it. he touched every bodys life in so many different ways. He was my soul and my heart and it just breaks more and more every day because i miss him so much i don’t know what to do. My friend is gone and i am so lonely. It just isn’t the same here any more. I just cry all of the time. What can i do? Please let me know because to be honest i am having a hard time dealing with the fact that he is no longer here and i loved him so much.Oh i think about the fun times we had and it helps with the loneliness then i realize he is no longer with me and the loneliness just comes right back again

jordan May 27, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Did she ever salivate when she was coughing?? but then go right back to being normal and eat and drink water after?? my kitten just did this n it really scared me, I called some friends but they dont know. I really hope its just a hair ball, but i haven’t seen one yet….. =/

gary August 11, 2011 at 6:43 am

Sorry to hear about your cat. Did you ever find out what the cause was? Regards, Gary

Fiona Mitchell August 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. Just over a week ago my cat came in from the garden late at night coughing and retching but was only bringing up spit. Normally when she wanted to bring up a hairball she succeeded pretty quickly but this was going on for a while. I then noticed some blood in the spit and she was drooling. I worried that she’d swallowed a mouse or a snail or something and might choke so looked online for advice. Some of the advice on websites freaked me out so I woke my partner so we could take her to the emergency out of hours vet. Before we left she brought up a HUGE long hairball so I thought she would be ok, but she continued to bring up phlegm and blood so we took her in. They kept her overnight and gave her antibiotics and something to soothe her stomach and also gave us meds and laxative to take home. A couple of days later she brought up an even bigger hairball so again I thought that was that and she’s be back to normal. She’s finished her course of meds but is still coughing and retching on a daily basis. The vet mentioned something about white cats being prone to a “hidden” heart defect that is invisible when scanned/x-ray-ed but drooling etc may be a sign. Does anyone had a cat with a lingering cough/gag? I’m starting to worry that there may be something more sinister than hairballs. Once again to the author, I’m so sorry for your loss, I can’t even begin to think about losing my baby, I’ve always had cats and losing them is heartbreaking. Thinking of you x

Melissa August 22, 2011 at 9:36 am

Fiona – Sorry to hear about the difficulties your cat is having! My gosh that would be very hard. :-( If she is still coughing all the time I would surely take her back to the vet and have an x-ray done of her lungs, etc., to see if anything is going on. Zoe had a lot of fluid build up and some other issues we didn’t know about until the X-Ray. If it is nothing but hairballs, your vet can probably suggest a course of action with food and supplements that help reduce hairballs. Hope your kitty gets better, and thank you for the thoughts.

Mindy August 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Thank you for posting this. My cat is doing the same thing – appointment made for the vet tomorrow. My condolences on the loss of Zoe.

Eric August 29, 2011 at 1:55 am

The fluid in the chest sounds like Chylo Thorax. Fluid from the lymph system builds up around the lungs. As the fluid increases, the lungs become compressed and breathing becomes labored. They don’t know why this happens and most cats don’t survive it. The supplement RUTIN and Horse Chestnut extract has shown some positive results in some cases. But its a difficult situation to control. =(

sarah powell October 31, 2011 at 6:53 am

My cat is currently having the exact same problems, he was coughing for a few days and i thought it was a hairball stuck, tried everything but to no avail, he took a turn for the worse on thursday so i rushed him to the vets, his temp was through the roof and the vet said that his breathing was very laboured and that it sounded like something flapping in his chest, que me bursting into tears. He has some antibiotics and the vet gave him an anti inflammatory which brought his temp right down. He is back in this afternoon and i’m scared to death as whilst he seems better and the coughing is becoming less he still doesnt seem back to normal…….

melissa October 31, 2011 at 11:26 am

Sarah – It is always so painful to watch our pets get ill, and not be able to help them. I hope your kitty recovers swifty! Keep us posted.

jo January 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm

this happened to my cat frankie, though luckily he survived by the skin of his t eeth and alot of help from the amazing vets at Langford. His story is similar, started cough and stoppped eating, and then in the space of a few days spiraled completely down to really succking his tummy in when he breathed and not being able to lie down. when the x-rayed him is chest was completely filled with puss (from a cat bite we think). I was lucky enough to have him insured and we drove him 1.5 hours to Langford vetenary hospital near bristol. prognosis was never good from the out. Pus was so thick chest drains couldnt clear it. he ended up having huge open chest surgery where they found 2 abcesses on his lungs. They removed them a few months ago, but unfortunately he started couching again and they have tolb me 2 more abcesses have appeared :( so far he is still doing ok – hes on antibiotics – synulox and metronizodale – i dont know what will happen so i spend every day with him like its our last.
if anyone has insurance and has dire problems, ask to be refered to Langford Vet hospital or some equivilent near you. i had no idea t hey existed and any othr vet would have put him down. Though the fees for everything cost alot i was lucly wth insurance.

Elle May 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I don’t wish to alarm anyone but my cat started what sounded like wheezing last week. I thought it was a hairball, then she started coughing. I took her to the animal ER and she had ultrasounds done of her chest. She had a large tumor and fluid was causing the coughing. She also had a tumor in her abdomen – it is lymphoma. We started chemo right away, with steroids and after a week, her tumors went into remission and her fluids went away. She is still on the chemo because lymphoma does come back but we hope to get her into full remission. She is happy otherwise – it’s a very tough situation because we have to treat her for the cancer since she has a great quality of life and energy. Please do not hesitate with coughs. Even if it is asthma, it is serious.

melissa May 29, 2012 at 8:50 am

Elle – So happy to hear that you caught the lymphoma and your cat is recoving!

theresa hlton June 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm

my cat coughs when excited and when just sitting there but mostly when another cat scares her or she gets excited. it weird she coughs really hard she holds down her head. she will do this for a few weeks and then it goes away. anyone ever have this probblem?

Claire H. June 22, 2012 at 10:57 am

Hi Theresa – I talked to the vets here because I didn’t know any advice for you and Dr. Kathy told me to send this on: Coughing can be caused by many things, including parasites and heartworm disease. I would suggest starting by taking your cat to the veterinarian for a physical examination. Your veterinarian will be able to narrow down what may be going on and make recommendations for treatment.

Mark Cooper November 27, 2012 at 9:56 am

Don’t want to frighten anyone.
My poor Sphynx Died and the only warning was a day before he had an odd cough (only did this 2 times).. and no hair it was not a hairball. He was only about 6 years old and was a happy and fit cat. Eating and drinking fine. I think he must have had a heart problem.

robbie phillips January 15, 2013 at 4:46 am

our cat had a heart condition and he had a pot belly and was very big. when i convinced my parents after FOUR MONTHS of him having this belly and not eating the correct food. i draged my mum and dad to take him to the vets.

we found out he had a heart condision. and started to give him tablets and we had to drain him……….. have you ever had to force a tablet….it most horrible thing iv ever done.

afterwords he had the liquid removed from his chest i noticed he was very thin.

on the 15th of December i noticed he stopped eating and wouldn’t take the tablets. i instantly new what was happening before my family did… on the 17th of december i could hear coughing and spluting. he was limp but he new i was there…. he was 18-years old. im almost 21 so being with someone that is part of you… till the end i felt very proud to be with him and him knowing i was there.

but he was my oldest friend he was there for me when i needed it…. and i needed to be there for him… at from 4:30(i woke up.) and at 5:46 he passed away.

he will always be remembered as being my cat. and being part of our family. i willl forever love him and hopefully he new that I love you kizzy R.I.P

anne April 25, 2013 at 11:48 am

I am very sorry for the “belated” loss of your lovely Zoe.
I wish I’d read this two months ago when my 18 y.o. cat begin the same symptoms as your Zoe.
I waited a month b/f seeing the vet b/c a year ealier my cat “Destiny” had undergone cancer sugery and I figured it was that progressing and didn’t want to stress her out more. but after constant coughing and what I thought were hair balls in her system, i did go to the vet and s he felt it was a cold/or trachea problem from a cold or even bronchitis – 4 rounds of Antibiotics didn’t work, so we opted for medicine in a mask for her to break in – an aerosol machine that I use for my daughter, which was funny in itself, but that aside – it eased up but did not solve the coughing. We gave up and allowed her to not be stressed out twice daily and decided to let her rest at home as long as comfortable.
Just last night though the wheezing started and today she is very weak and unsure of herself. Her little heart is beating so fast, she weighs next to nothing and is now only about 2.5 kilos ( used to be 7) and i fear is having one of her last days with us. I hope not and I will return to the vet tomorrow ( today is a holiday) and check to make sure she’s not in pain. I’d hate to find out like others on this site that her lungs or chest is filling with liquid. I will attempt to make an update in a few days. So sad when our beloved pets must leave our side. I wish, just like with humans, that she could go in her sleep and be peaceful in her passing.

Melissa R. April 25, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Anne, thank you for sharing your story. I do hope your kitty is pain free. Please update us if you can!

anne April 26, 2013 at 4:11 am

oh hi I’m sooo glad you got my mssg. I thought after 2 years my note may just help to serve other Worried mothers like me. Destiny is now with Zoe. May they both keep each other company. D. had a horrible night and by morning it was nearly over. So other people know – all our cats symptoms are indeed to be considered URGENT and the panting of the mouth open – breathing strangely, rapid heart rate, off food, off their usual “likes” and the inevitable wanting to be alone, constantly moving to get comfortable and the final loss of bowels, balance etc. I’m in Italy and my cat was found in a dumpster in LA at two days old. She came into my life by destiny, hence the name, but we stayed best mates for the entire near 19 years. THOUGH that said she certainly snubbed me for a good few days after I made her travel all the way to ITALY from LA without me.
I have to erase the thoughts of her passing from my mind and any guilt that comes with it – she was suffering and the vet said she was way past recovering from where she now was. Without doing tests, all we can assume is t hat the cancer (they removed a year ago) had come back and rapidly affected her immune system. Euthanasia is humane if done lovingly and quickly. I hope our words help others and thank you for posting yours originally. xoxo

john May 17, 2013 at 11:10 pm

How old was your cat? I have a 16 year old who is doing that, had no other symptoms though other than…..old age. I think you did fine by your cat. I think, like with humans, there can be slow heart failure….which causes fluid buildup. Water pills can help but we all need to realize, especially with old cats….there is no magic remedy at some point. All we do is bother the old cat and not really making a difference. Vets say there’s nothing they can do but keep offering us testing and such.

cynthia May 26, 2013 at 11:05 am

my cats name is chaos and she has never had a problem with getting rid of her hairballs till a few days ago when she try’s all she spits up is a little bit of like spit and her adorable meow started to fade and now she makes this weird noise or when she meows her mouth moves but she makes no noise I love my cat so much and i’m not sure what is wrong with her my father who I live with is saying its just a hairball so I told him can we get some stuff for it x.x so I have to wait till Monday.. then im going to give it to her even if she dose not like it . one more thing that im confused about if its a hair ball how can she eat her treats I haven’t seen her eat much regular food so I have been giving her temptation treats witch are her favorite for now…. she also make a drooling noise and I can hear her swallowing the drool and sorry if my conversation is a bit scattered but I have not been to sleep yet 24hrs .she is a seven year old cat.

Truthergirl23 July 10, 2013 at 3:06 am

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feline_infectious_peritonitis
Sounds like FIP. I lost my Ragdoll kitten to this in January :(

aud thiessen February 10, 2014 at 9:24 am

we have a Russian Blue by the Name of Amelia and it is just like a family member and mostly an indoor cat but sometimes slips out but comes immediately back if we call her.
lately she is coughing if she jumps in the morning on our bed but not throwing up and have noticed her also doing this in the morning and throwing up her food or just a yellow like liquid.
other wise she is very contend and if it is cold sleeps in front of the fire place.
there is no problem with digesting food , she gets in the morning 9 lives canned cat food and then the dried food “Science Diet ” Sensitive stomach that she has been on for years thru out the day and evening.
any one can tell us more will be very appreciated.

rick July 5, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Eric’s comment is right on point. Chylothorax is an accumulation of “chyle” in the chest cavity. It is a milky fluid that is corrosive and deadly. It should remain in the gun, but injury, or impact, or merely idiopathic causes result in the fluid accumulation in the chest. It will kill. The fluid must be tapped regularly or the cat will essentially drown in its own fluids, as the lungs will not be able to inflate and the pressure on the heart can stop the heart. While the Rutin has had minor success, the only real help is surgery. And there is no more than a 50% chance of success. Our cat had the surgery, and we were lucky. It worked. It stopped the chyle. But there was still fluid accumulation. We knew she had a tumor on her chest wall. It is likely the chyle was induced by the tumor. But the tumor could not be removed by the surgery. And then after the surgery it was so large it was pressing against her heart causing fluid to leak, likely exudate or transudate. Four biopsies revealed little about the mass. It was pyogranulomutous, or a thymoma. No cancer cells were detected. We had one last hope – radiation. 10 work days in a row, sedating her every morning. It was very difficult on all concerned. But it worked. The mass disappeared. Even the doctors are not sure how or why. They honestly did not hold out much hope. For now we have our sweet kitty back. She has gained weight, and strength and is back to her kitty ways. And it all started with a wheezing, with no following hairball. She would crouch low, and twist her head back and forth while she wheezed, like she had something in her throat or couldn’t catch her breath. It you see that happen, don’t wait. Go to your vet or an animal hospital where they have the capability of xrays and ultrasound. It may save a life.

Rob Richards August 7, 2014 at 3:04 am

Poor fellow. I’m sorry for your cat. Lesson learned though, older cats should visit the vet regularly. This is very inspiring, it’ll be an honor if I share this. Do you mind?

Cameron August 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Hi it’s a question about Zoe the cat. I was just wondering how long Zoe had been doing the coughing for as our cat has only recently been showing the same symptoms as Zoe has and was wondering what we could do to find out what to do???
Thanks
Cameron

Melissa R. August 11, 2014 at 11:20 am

It had been several months before we noticed the weight loss on her. I would bring your cat in ASAP if she is coughing. Just to be safe.

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