Help! My Cat Has a Raspy Meow

No one knows your pets better than you do. You can pick up subtle changes in their behaviors, appetites, and litter box habits. What if you even noticed their voice or meowing has changed? Instead of their typical meow, you are noticing they have developed a raspy meow, like they’ve been smoking packs of cigarettes. Perhaps they try to meow, and no noise comes out at all. There are several possible medical reasons for this, and recommendations for what to do next.

Possible Causes

Because the larynx contains the vocal folds that produce the voice, laryngeal disease is where the raspy meow is coming from. So what is causing that? The major categories of these issues include:

  • inflammation,
  • infection, or
  • masses.

Inflammation can occur if something has damaged the larynx, such as swallowing something hard or some other traumatic event. Inflammation can also be caused by gastric reflux. Besides the voice change, these are also likely associated with vomiting or regurgitation. What about excessive meowing? There is an association between cats with high blood pressures (hypertension) meowing excessively. Kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and heart disease can cause systemic hypertension, and would be detected on the baseline lab work and x-rays.

My Cat Has a Raspy Meow

Infectious can be bacterial, viral, or even fungal. One example of a bacterial disease is Mycoplasma felis. While these may not be the most likely causes, it is something that a thorough screening should be on the lookout for.

A mass on the larynx has been shown to cause voice changes in cats. Masses can be benign or malignant. Types of benign masses may include cysts, polyps, or granulomas, which are an accumulation of inflammatory cells. Unfortunately, some masses can be more aggressive and can spread to other organs throughout the body. Malignant masses that may be expected in this area could be squamous cell carcinomas and lymphoma. This is where the biopsy comes into play. If a mass is found, the biopsy is the best way to determine what type of cells it is made of, which will show what it is and what stage it is. Staging, or categorizing how aggressive it is, is useful in determining prognosis and treatment recommendations.

This is not an exhaustive list of causes, but would be a good starting place for practitioners to investigate.

Raspy Meow Differential List

Inflammation Infection Benign Masses Malignant Masses
Trauma Bacterial

(example: Mycoplasma felis)

Polyp Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Gastric Reflux Viral Cyst Lymphoma
Excessive Vocalization Fungal Granuloma

Treatments

The treatment really depends on the underlying cause. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Treating the underlying cause yields the best chance for recovery. If a mass is not detected, starting medical management would be appropriate. This includes anti-inflammatories and possibly antibiotics. If high blood pressure is present, managing the cause of that would hopefully relieve the clinical signs. Surgical removal may be necessary if the vet notices a mass. Some polyps actually peel out pretty easily, however some other masses may be more involved. Depending on the comfort level of your primary veterinarian, a referral to a surgery or oncology specialist may be in your pet’s best interest. After surgery, the malignant tumors may require additional treatments, such as chemo or radiation therapies.

What your veterinarian will do

Once you notice a big change in your pet’s daily activities or behaviors, it is time to take them to see your primary veterinarian. Armed with an excellent description of the concerns you have at home, and a thorough physical exam, they will determine what the next best steps would be. A good starting place may include baseline lab work and a blood pressure to look for any organ dysfunction or underlying diseases.

Next, as the problem in question is a voice change, it would make sense to look at the vocal folds themselves. This would be accomplished under sedation to get a thorough look way in the back of the mouth, which 99% of cats would likely protest awake; this is called an oropharyngeal exam. Depending on the findings, a biopsy, or sample of tissue, may be indicated. Another useful diagnostic tool would be X-rays. X-rays can be taken of the neck and chest to look for foreign material, swelling, or other abnormalities that may play a role in the hoarse meow.

If an answer is still not determined, transferring to a specialist for more advanced evaluation may be indicated. This may include a laryngoscopy (a video camera-containing tube that goes can get a closer look at the back of the mouth and throat) and a CT scan.

Diagnostic Work Up Summary

1. General Physical Exam
2. Baseline Lab Work
3. X-rays (neck, chest +/- belly)
4. Sedated oropharyngeal exam
5. Biopsies
6. Referral to a Specialist

While the list of diagnostics can be overwhelming, and expensive, please keep in mind that these tests are geared toward the specific differentials, or potential causes, of the problem at hand. Tests are helpful in narrowing that list down until finding the most likely causes, or the definitive cause. It is also important to note that negative tests are still valuable, as it is just as important to rule things out as it is to rule them in.

Prognosis and Recovery

Again, it depends on the underlying cause, as well as the response to therapy. Some cats on medical management require weeks of meds at home, but make a complete recovery. Surgical removal of benign masses is usually curative. The prognosis for the more aggressive masses depends on the stage, presence of spread, but is typically poor.

Daily monitoring at home, and routine veterinary care are key in early detection and action, thus leading to the best chances of saving the cat’s meow.

Author

  • Dr. Eric Weiner

    Dr. Eric Weiner is an emergency veterinarian at the Veterinary Emergency Center of Central Florida. He graduated with a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) in 2015 from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.