The larynx (better known as the voice box in humans) is a cylindrical group of muscles, cartilage and soft tissue which contains the vocal cords and is located in the upper opening of the trachea. Laryngitis is a common disease in cats that occurs when the larynx becomes inflamed due to irritation or infection. It can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (long-standing).
- Upper respiratory infection (most commonly due to feline herpesvirus or calicivirus)
- Inhaled irritants (dust, smoke, fumes, chemicals)
- Foreign body
- Excessive meowing (stress, sickness, separation anxiety)
- Trauma (blunt or penetrating)
- Regurgitation of stomach contents (megaesophagus or reflux)
- Placement of an endotracheal tube
Clinical signs may vary depending on the underlying pathology, for example, cats with an upper respiratory infection may also have nasal discharge, sneezing and fever.
The most common sign is a change in vocalisation, the meow may sound deep and raspy which can progress to a complete inability to vocalise. Other symptoms include a harsh and dry cough and wheezing.
In some cases, a granuloma can form which is a benign mass made up of inflammatory cells. Oedema (fluid build-up), inflammation or a granuloma can lead cause a blockage of the airways.
Note: Always be alert to changes in meow or a loss of voice as this can also be a sign of tick paralysis, which is life-threatening if not treated immediately.
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of the cat, and obtain a medical history from you which will include the onset of signs, vaccination history and symptoms. Palpation may reveal an enlarged larynx.
A definitive diagnosis is based on an examination of the larynx with an endoscope. Inflammation and oedema will be visible and trauma or a foreign object may be seen. The cat will require short-acting anesthesia for this procedure. If a mass is present, a sample will be taken for cytology or histopathology to rule out cancer.
Diagnostic imaging may be necessary to look for evidence of pneumonia and metastatic tumours.
It is also important to determine what has caused laryngitis in the first place which may require further diagnostics depending on the veterinarian’s index of suspicion. This may include tracheal wash and allergy testing (food elimination trial and/or skin prick tests).
The goal of treatment is to address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care to relieve symptoms.
- Most upper respiratory infections are viral and are managed with supportive care which includes fluid therapy, nutritional support and rest while the cat’s immune system mounts a response. Antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections but may be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infections.
- Irritation from the placement of an endotracheal tube or inhaled irritants should resolve without therapy.
- Removal of a foreign object can be carried out during endoscopic evaluation of the larynx.
- Corticosteroids can be prescribed to reduce inflammation.
- Analgesics to reduce pain; must be prescribed by a veterinarian, do not administer human painkillers to a cat as they are toxic.
- Diuretics to reduce fluid build-up.
- If the larynx is obstructed, it will be necessary to place a tracheostomy tube to allow the cat to breathe until the obstruction can be corrected.
Feed the cat a soft diet fed at room temperature can relieve discomfort during recovery.
Administer medications as prescribed by the veterinarian.
Cats recovering from upper respiratory infections can benefit from increased humidity and regular removal of discharge from the eyes and nose. Keep cats with flu away from other household cats to reduce the risk of transmission.
Not all cases of laryngitis can be prevented, but there are ways to reduce the risk.
Vaccinate all cats against cat flu. Vaccines start from 8 weeks when the kitten receives three vaccinations spaced four weeks apart.
Avoid exposure to smoke where possible by smoking outside and closing windows fire season of winter when people are using fires.
Cats are considerably more sensitive to fumes than we are, where possible, use natural products around the home and limit the use of harsh chemicals. Where chemicals are used, keep the cat away from the area and open windows to reduce the concentration of fumes.
Don’t feed cats cooked bones or other hard objects which can irritate or damage the larynx.
Frequently asked questions
Is laryngitis contagious to people or other cats?
This depends on what has caused laryngitis. Upper respiratory infections are contagious to other cats but not people.
How long does laryngitis usually last?
Again, this will depend on the cause. Once the underlying cause has been addressed, recovery should take a week or two.