It’s not the sound you would expect to make, is it? So if your cat suddenly starts making gulping sounds, or if they have done so for a while, you are going to want to know what’s going on. Why do cats make gulping sounds? Is it anything to be worried about? What should you do in response, if anything? Here’s everything you’ll want to know about it.
So, why does my cat make gulping sounds? Cats may make gulping sounds for several reasons: either they have hairballs, have just finished having a drink, or have a problem such as asthma or dysphagia. Some cats can gulp while purring because of a potential thyroid issue.
As you can see, there is not one definitive reason here.
It could be something benign and temporary, but it could also indicate a potential health concern.
So with this in mind, let’s continue to explore each potential cause in much further detail before turning to when to be concerned, and what to do in each context.
Reasons Why Cats May Make Gulping Sounds
Your cat could be gulping because of hairballs or because they’ve just finished drinking. Other times it’s a medical problem, like dysphagia, asthma, or a thyroid problem.
Your Cat May Have Hairballs
Hairballs are a common problem for cats, as they ingest a lot of fur when they groom themselves.
Hairballs can get stuck in a cat’s throat and be difficult to dislodge, leading to your cat making hacking or gulping noises as they try to expel the hairballs.
Most of the hair your cat swallows will eventually pass through their digestive tract, but some of it remains in the stomach and gradually builds up to form a large clump of hair – the hairball.
Many cats will cough up a hairball once every one to two weeks.
Your Cat May Have Just Finished Drinking or Eating
If you notice your cat making gulping sounds right after drinking water, this is usually nothing to worry about.
Some cats need more time to get water down their throats, and it could be you’ve come upon your cat just as they are trying to swallow the water.
Gulping sounds due to a cat who has just drunk water are not very common, but they do happen occasionally with some cats.
Some cats will make gulping sounds because they’ve eaten too fast!
Your Cat May Have Asthma
Asthma in cats (as in humans) causes breathing problems which can lead to gulping sounds if your cat is struggling for air. Other symptoms of asthma include:
- Coughing or gagging
- Rapid breathing
- Open-mouth breathing
- More effort to breathe, or visible difficulty breathing
- Blue gums and lips
Your Cat May Have Dysphagia
It could be your cat has dysphagia. Dysphagia is a condition where cats struggle to swallow food normally.
Types of Dysphagia
There are three types of dysphagia, all causing swallowing difficulties:
- Pharyngeal dysphagia (in the pharynx). You may see your cat trying to swallow while extending its head and neck, chewing a lot, and gagging. Food retained in its cheek folds is coated with saliva. Your cat will have a diminished gag reflex, and you may see snotty discharge from its nose.
- Oral dysphagia (in the mouth). You may notice your cat has pockets of chewed food in their cheek folds, without saliva.
- Cricopharyngeal dysphagia (at the far end of the pharynx and entering the esophagus). Your cat might be able to swallow to get food down but then gag and cough, throwing it back up. Cats with cricopharyngeal dysphagia are often way too thin, as they can’t keep food down.
Causes of Dysphagia
There are many potential causes of dysphagia, which include:
Anatomic or mechanical problems, such as:
- Abscesses or inflammatory growths
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Jaw problems (joint problems, a fracture, paralysis)
- Malformations (cleft palate, fold of tissue on the tongue)
- Trauma or injury to the mouth or jaw
- A foreign body
Pain from other problems, making it difficult to swallow, such as:
- An inflamed mouth, tongue, or pharynx
- Dental disease (like a fractured tooth or an abscess)
Pharyngeal weakness or paralysis problems, like:
- Infectious polymyositis (like Neosporosis or Toxoplasmosis)
- An immune disease that causes muscle inflammation
- Nerve problems
- Muscular dystrophy
Neurological problems, like:
- Brain disorders
Neuromuscular problems, such as:
- Inflamed chewing muscles
- Damage to the tongue
- Cranial nerve deficits
- Other types of nerve damage
Needless to say, cats with dysphagia require immediate veterinary treatment.
Your Cat May Have a Thyroid Problem
Some cats will gulp while they purr. If your cat does this once or twice, there’s usually no need for concern, but if this is a recurring issue, it could be your cat has a thyroid problem.
One cat owner reported their cat, who was gulping while purring, was diagnosed with a thyroid issue. There are two main types:
- Hypothyroidism. This is when your cat has an underactive thyroid, so it isn’t producing enough thyroid hormones.
- Hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is when your cat’s thyroid is too active, producing too many thyroid hormones. Hyperthyroidism is the one that can be the culprit if a cat is gulping while purring, according to some owners.
You will need to consult your vet if you suspect your cat has a thyroid problem. Your vet will usually provide supplements and perhaps a change of diet for your cat.
Should I Be Concerned About My Cat Making Gulping Sounds?
Whether to be concerned or not about your cat making gulping sounds depends on the cause of the problem. Medical causes need veterinary attention and are always a cause for concern, whereas habits can be changed in most cases.
When To Be Concerned And Involve Your Vet
If your cat has a medical problem, you should be concerned and get them to the vet as soon as possible.
Any symptoms of the following problems (as described above) necessitate veterinary intervention:
- Thyroid problems
You probably won’t be able to diagnose the problem yourself, but you know your cat, so if you suspect there’s anything wrong, get them to the vet.
Cats are likely to hide any signs of weakness, so if you think the gulping sounds are a sign that something is wrong, the sooner you get help the better for your cat.
Problems You Can Probably Solve Yourself
If your cat is gulping because of hairballs, the best thing to do is groom your cat regularly so that they don’t ingest so much fur when they self-groom.
If, however, you notice any of the following symptoms, contact your vet immediately.
These symptoms can indicate a hairball has formed a blockage that could be life-threatening:
- Ongoing hacking, gagging, retching, etc. without producing a hairball
- Lack of appetite
Drinking or Eating Too Fast
If your cat tends to gulp down their food (which some cats do in nature), you can find ways to help them slow down.
For food, try puzzle toys where she has to figure out how to get her food out of a toy.
You can also try feeding them small portions in more frequent meals throughout the day.
Be sure to feed them at regular times so they know when to expect food: this can lower anxiety and help them eat more slowly.
Some people use slow feeder bowls with great success – the bowl will only distribute a small amount of food at a time.
For drinking, try switching from dry food to wet food. Cats are accustomed to getting most of their water from food (mice are mostly water!)
You can also try adding a bit of warm water to your cat’s canned food, provided it doesn’t get too soupy.
Note: If your cat is drinking more than usual, this can signify a kidney problem, so get them to the vet before trying to make them drink more slowly!
What To Do About Your Cat’s Gulping Sounds
If your cat has a possible medical problem, the best thing to do is get them to the vet. If the problem is something that seems to be a habit or a one-off occurrence (such as hairballs), you probably don’t need to act, apart from keeping an eye on your cat until the sounds stop.
For Medical Problems
For medical problems, get your cat to the vet for a diagnosis. When a cat is making gulping sounds, a vet will probably do any of the following:
- Take a full medical history, including recent injuries or illnesses
- Order standard tests, such as a urinalysis, a blood analysis, and a chemical blood profile
- Draw blood to run other lab tests to check inflammatory disorders as well as possible myositis, immune-related diseases, hypothyroidism, and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease, where the adrenal glands secrete too much cortisol)
- Take X-rays and ultrasounds of your cat’s neck and skull to check for abnormalities
- Take tissue samples (if needed, or if a tumor is suspected)
Treatment varies greatly depending on the problem, but is likely to involve any of the following options:
- Dietary changes
- Pain medication
- Other medication (anti-inflammatories, thyroid medication, etc.)
- Hand-feeding your cat, or using a stomach tube (for severe weight problems)
- IV treatments
For Non-Medical Issues
For the occasional mishap such as hairballs or eating or drinking too fast, treat your cat at home using the methods described above.
Other Tips To Help Reduce Hairballs
In addition to grooming, here are some other things you can do to help avoid your cat having too many hairballs:
- Take your cat to a groomer. If your cat doesn’t like you brushing their fur, you may have to resort to a groomer to do the job for you, especially if your cat has long hair. Grooming your cat once every six months or so can really help prevent hairballs.
- Try giving your cat some specialized “hairball reduction” food. These cat foods are high in fiber and are designed to help minimize shedding and encourage the hair to pass through your cat’s digestive tract.
- Try a mild hairball product (check with your vet first). There are various hairball products available which act as very mild laxatives which can help your cat pass hairballs. However, get approval from your vet, as these are not suitable for all cats.
- Make sure your cat isn’t overgrooming. Cats will overgroom themselves if they are bored or stressed, so make sure your cat has plenty of physical and mental stimulation, including quality time with you.
Other Tips to Help with Eating Too Fast
You can also try these tips to help your cat eat more slowly:
- Try putting their food on a baking tray. By using a baking tray to spread out your cat’s food, they’ll have to work harder by taking one bite and then moving along the pan to get to the next one.
- Put an obstacle in the way of their food. Try adding something like a golf or ping pong ball to your cat’s food (easiest if you’re already using the above ‘baking tray’ method). Your cat will have to push the ball around to get at their food. Don’t try this method in a feeder, though!
- Try an automatic cat feeder (with portion control). Some automatic cat feeders have a portion control setting to allow you to help feed your cat frequent and smaller portions.
Other Things To Know About Your Cat’s Gulping Sounds
Your cat could be hiccuping instead of gulping – both noises sound very much the same.
Your Cat Could Be Hiccuping Instead of Gulping
Cats can get hiccups, and it can sound like a cat is gulping when in fact it’s struggling with hiccups.
Hiccups come from trapped air, sometimes when your cat eats too quickly or has a hairball.
Sometimes the hiccups can sound like gulps, and other times you may only notice your cat’s abdomen moving or a small sound like a squeak.
Your Cat Could Be Reacting to Medication
Sometimes cats can gulp as a side effect of certain medications.
One cat owner gave their cat Lactulose (a constipation medication) and then noticed their cat gulping.
The vet confirmed that the gulping came from the medication.
Cats metabolize drugs differently from dogs and humans, and different medications carry different potential side effects.
If your cat has recently had new medication, check with your vet to see if this is why your cat gulps.
Your vet might be able to change the medication to something that your cat tolerates better.
If your cat is making gulping sounds, you’ve absolutely done the right thing by starting to investigate.
By now, you may be able to come to your own conclusions about the underlying cause.
But if in doubt, if you are concerned, or if your cat does show other alarming symptoms or behaviors, do contact a vet.
Gulping sounds can indicate health issues, and a vet is will be required in such circumstances.
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I am a practiced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site I created to share everything I’ve learned about pet ownership over the years and my extensive research along the way.