Learn how to tell whether your feline friend is just coughing or if he’s experiencing a more dangerous lack of air.

If your cat is choking, it's an emergency. But it can be difficult to tell whether your cat is just coughing, or actually choking. Learn how to distinguish the two and what you can do at home if your cat loses consciousness. 

What Causes Cats to Choke?

Things like dry kibble, pills, tinsel, or string can get stuck in a cat's throat or trachea (the tube connecting the throat to the lungs) and block air flow. An obstruction in the esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach) can also cause choking if the stuck item is large enough to press on the nearby trachea, Aimee Simpson, VMD, medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia, explains. 

cat with ball of yarn
Credit: milanvirijevic / Getty

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Coughing and Choking? 

Coughing is often mistaken for choking. Cats may cough if they have hairballs, asthma, or heartworm disease. If your cat is coughing, you should have it checked out by your veterinarian.

Choking, on the other hand, is a dire situation for which you should seek immediate veterinary care. "Cats that are truly choking have difficulty inhaling," Simpson says. "A choking cat may have reduced oxygen delivery resulting in cyanosis [bluish color of the tongue and gums] and may lose consciousness within two minutes if the airway is completely obstructed."

Other signs of respiratory distress include: 

  • Noisy breathing (snoring-type sound or high-pitched noise)
  • Increased breathing movement in the abdomen
  • Open mouth
  • Salivating

What Should You Do If Your Cat Is Choking?

The best thing to do for a choking cat is to rush to a veterinary clinic. Though you may be tempted to try to help your kitty yourself, avoid sticking your fingers near their mouth. Your cat is likely to bite, and cat bites often lead to infection.

Finger Sweep

If your cat loses consciousness, you can perform a finger sweep to look for the obstruction in the mouth, Simpson says. "Open the mouth and gently pull out the tongue to look for an object that's blocking air flow. Quickly sweep the mouth back to the base of the tongue with your index finger. Don't put your finger down the throat. This could push an object farther down."

Heimlich Maneuver

You can try the Heimlich maneuver on an unconscious cat as well. Start by holding your cat with its back to your stomach and placing a fist below the rib cage. Pull your fist towards yourself in two to three gentle but firm upward movements. Excess force may fracture ribs or damage internal organs, Simpson warns.

How Do You Prevent Your Cat From Choking?

Ideally, you want to keep choking hazards out of your cat's environment. Cats are drawn to chewing on tinsel, string, yarn, and hair ties. Make sure your cat doesn't have access to string-like objects and toys that are small enough to be swallowed.

When it comes to feeding, Simpson recommends using a food puzzle or a slow-feed bowl for dry food. This will slow down cats who tend to quickly gulp food. Also, never give bones to your cat, since slivers of bone can get stuck in their airway. 

Administering medication can also create a choking hazard, Simpson says. "Be sure to follow a pill with a syringe of water to prevent it from getting stuck in the esophagus. If your cat is struggling, stop trying to give medication because this could accidentally cause the cat to cough and inhale the pill."

Whether your cat is choking or coughing, both require veterinary attention. But choking is an emergency. When in doubt, head to or contact your veterinarian immediately. Better to assume that it's an emergency than to wait until it's too late.