It may come as a surprise, but cat asthma is a very realand prominent concern. With this condition, the small bronchioles in your cat’slungs become chronically inflammed, just as happens with humans. As thesepassageways become thicker, it becomes increasingly difficult for your kitty tobreathe as mucus accumulates in the bronchioles.
Cats with asthma are too often overlooked, because theirsymptoms so closely mimic those of one of the most common problems cats sufferfrom: hairballs. However, overlooking symptoms like cat coughing can be veryserious, shortening your kitty’s lifespan significantly, or even leading to aserious, life-threatening respiratory arrest. Just like with humans, cats canhave such severe asthma attacks that they don’t receive enough oxygen tosupport vital organ functions. Recognizing cat breathing problems is criticalfor getting your cat the care he needs sooner rather than later.
Symptoms of Feline Asthma
Cat asthma most often developsbetween the ages of 2 and 6 years, although it can certainly develop in cats atany age. The most common symptom of feline respiratory disease of any kind isyour cat coughing, which unfortunately is often brushed off as a failed attempt to coughup a hairball. When a cat is struggling to cough up a hairball, the sound isquite similar to one heard during a feline asthma attack. The cat will oftenalso have his head low and parallel to the floor with his neck stretched out.
Some cats have mild cases ofasthma, with few other early warning signs beyond these cat coughing fits thathappen on occasion. However, some cats will also wheeze or have very noisybreathing, which is another symptom that could signal your cat has a felinerespiratory disease.
Because cat asthma is a chroniccondition, coughing or wheezing symptoms will often increase over time. Duringvery severe asthma attacks, a cat may hold his mouth open, as if he is gaspingfor air, with deep, noticable breaths being taken. Normally, a cat’s breathingis hardly noticable, but in a severe attack, your asthmatic cat’s sides will beheaving with each breath. When attacks are severe enough, a cat can vomit oreven get so little oxygen to his organs that he dies.
Making the Diagnosis
Your observation of feline asthmasymptoms at home will be the foundation for your cat’s diagnosis, so it’simportant to make notes of frequency of attacks, any possible triggers (was acandle lit? was your cat exercising? etc.), and the duration of each “episode”and report them to your veterinarian.
During your kitty’s exam, your vetmay hear crackling, whistling, or increased breath sounds while listening toyour cat’s lungs. Even without these signs, though, your vet will likely wantto do a chest x-ray to diagnose asthma.
On the x-ray, your vet will belooking for signs that your cat’s lungs are over-inflated, the lining of thelungs is thickened, or that there is evidence that air is trapped in yourkitty’s lungs. He will also be looking to make sure that your cat’s heart looksnormal, as cat heart disease can also produce similar symptoms. Likewise,heartworms can cause similar symptoms and even produce similar appearing x-rayresults, so your vet may also recommend a test for heartworms.
When x-rays aren’t clear enoughto support a diagnosis of cat asthma, your vet may recommend a trans-trachealor broncial wash. During this procedure, a solution of saline is used to washcells from the lungs and look for eosinophils, a particular kind of white cell,found in cats with asthma.
What Causes Cat Asthma Attacks
Your cat can have similar allergies and triggers that wehumans suffer from that cause her attacks, and/or she may have attacks that aretriggered by stress of any kind, whether emotional or physical. Common triggersfor a cat asthma attack include:
- Smoke (cooking or tobacco)
- Perfumes, scented candles, and other household deodorizers
- Aerosol sprays like hairspray, fabric sprays, furniture cleaners, etc.
- Scented and/or dusty cat litter
This list is, by no means, comprehensive. Any cat, just asany human, can have attacks that are triggered by any number of environmentalthings. On rarer occasions, cats can even be triggered to have an asthma attackfrom physical exertion or exercise, emotional stress, or even extremetemperatures.
Treating Asthma in Cats
Inmost cases, your veterinarian will want to treat your cat with medications likeprednisolone (a corticosteroid), theophylline (a bronchodilator), and/orcyproheptadine (an antihistamine). These medications are given orally forsymptom maintenance. The goal of medication is to control your cat’s asthmasymptoms as much as possible, so if necessary, your vet may give your cat acombination of these drugs. Some vets also prefer to keep doses of steroids toa minimum, so bronchodilators and antihistamines may be the first choice. Eachvet will have his or her own protocol and make decisions based on your cat’ssymptoms, but you can discuss the variety of treatment options with your vet tofind the one(s) with which you feel the most comfortable.
Whena cat is suffering from an acute, serious asthma attack, the best treatment isan inhaler system like AeroKat®. This mask-style inhaler looks and works verysimilarly to the asthma systems used for babies and small children and worksvery quickly to control symptoms. In very severe acute attacks, a cat may needto be hospitalized at the vet and placed on oxygen therapy.
Becausesymptoms can become quite severe and because cat asthma is a chronic condition,it is also strongly recommended that one method of treatment is also to makeenvironmental changes at home. With some keychanges to your environment, you’ll help to reduce the number of attacks yourcat has and may even reduce how much medication he needs to keep his symptomsat bay.
Takea good look around your house and try to remove irritants like scented candles,dusty cat litter, scented cat litter, and plug-in room deodorizers. Also try touse things like perfume or hairspray in rooms where the door is closed and yourcat is not present but that are also well-ventilated. Try to reduce your use ofchemical cleaning agents, using hypoallergenic and all-natural supplies anddetergents whenever possible, and vaccuuming and dusting as often as possible.Also, encourage members of your household to smoke cigarettes and cigarsoutside only and keep your kitchen well-ventilated when you’re cooking.
Further Reading About Feline Asthma
Fortunately, cat asthma can be managed and your kitty canlive a very normal lifespan despite his diagnosis. With prompt medicaltreatment and environmental changes, as well as thorough symptom management,your cat’s quality of life can be equally good! To learn more about asthma andother feline respiratory diseases, please see the following resources:
Feline Asthma: Cornell Feline Health Center (opens in new window)
Video of Cat Coughing During Asthma Attack (opens in new window)
What Other Visitors Have Said
The comments, stories, and questions and answers below have been submitted by loving cat parents just like you and may address some of your concerns and experiences about cat asthma.
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