Bronchitis in Cats

Grey cat looking off to the side

cristinairanzo / Getty Images

Feline chronic bronchitis, sometimes called feline tracheobronchitis or feline asthma, is a disease seen in a fair number of cats. While it may seem like a scary diagnosis, symptoms can be managed so that your cat can live a happy life.

What Is Bronchitis in Cats?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of your cat's lower airway, including their trachea and bronchioles. This inflammation can then cause excessive secretions within the airway as well as a narrowing, impeding your cat's ability to bring oxygen in. It can be an acute process and the changes in your cat's airway may be reversible but it can also be a chronic disease process, lasting anywhere from two to three months and causing irreversible changes in your cat's airway. Feline bronchitis, or asthma is very similar to asthma seen in people.

What Are the Symptoms of Bronchitis in Cats?

The most commonly seen symptom of asthmatic cats is a dry, hacking cough. Coughing cats will squat down low and extend their neck out. If you think this sounds a lot like the position a cat assumes when they are coughing up a hairball, you'd be correct. In fact, the first few times you catch your cat coughing you may think they are coughing up hairball. The difference being a true cough won't end in a hairball on your floor. Other commonly seen symptoms seen in cats with bronchitis includes whistling or wheezing with each breath (usually heard more audibly on exhale than inhale) and an increasing difficulty breathing. This difficult breathing can even progress to the point of open mouth breathing. Open mouth breathing, or panting is not a normal behavior in cats like it is in dogs and if you see your cat suddenly panting you should seek veterinary medical attention immediately. As your cat's bronchitis progresses you may also start to see a decrease in energy, noticing them laying around the house more. It's important to note that cat's with bronchitis won't lose their appetite nor will they have a fever. Your cat's bronchitis symptoms may be cyclical, seasonal, or even constant, depending on the cause.

Signs of Bronchitis in Cats

  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Squatting low and sticking neck out
  • Whistling or wheezing with each breath
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Panting
  • Decease in energy

What Causes Bronchitis in Cats?

Feline bronchitis can be caused be any number of airway irritants, allergies, bacterial infections, or even parasites such as lungworm, heartworm, or toxoplasmosis. Determining the actual cause of your cat's bronchitis may not be possible. This is due in part to the range of causative agents but also due to the range of tests needed to rule out each cause. Testing for each individual cause can be time consuming as well as cost prohibitive. Airway irritants can include things like cigarette smoke, perfume, carpet cleaners, scented laundry detergents or fabric softeners, and even essential oil diffusers.

How is Bronchitis in Cats Diagnosed?

When you initially bring your cat in for coughing or difficulty breathing, your veterinarian will begin by listening to your cat's heart and lungs. Congestion in your cat's lower airway can actually be heard with a stethoscope. From there, your vet will likely take an x-ray of your cat's chest to look for any changes that would suggest bronchitis (or any other reason for you cat's symptoms). They may also check bloodwork to look at your cat's white blood cells and a stool sample to look for lungworms. More specialized tests such as a bronchoscopy or a wash of your cat's airway system may be performed. Both of these tests require your cat to be under general anesthesia. A bronchoscopy will allow your vet to better visualize your cat's lungs and airway and a wash will allow your vet to obtain a sample of any bacteria or pathogenic parasites that may be in your cat's lower airway.

How is Bronchitis in Cats Treated?

Since feline bronchitis can be cause by a variety of things and since determining the true cause can be difficult, treatment takes a multimodal approach. This may include medications, diet, and avoiding potential allergens. Medical treatment may include bronchodilators such as albuterol and corticosteroids such as prednisolone. These will help to open up your cat's airway as well as to decrease the inflammation in them. Just like in people, bronchodilators are usually administered by inhalation. Believe it or not, there are inhalers manufactured for cats! Your vet can help you and your cat get acclimated to their new inhaler system in no time.

Avoiding airway allergens can mean different things depending on those present in your home. Changing your laundry detergents to a dye free, fragrance free variety, especially when washing your cat's bedding is one step. If your cat's litter is particularly dusty, switching to a low-dust, fragrance free litter can help keep their bathroom habits allergen free as well. Of course, all cats have different litter preferences, so keep an eye on your cat's bathroom habits to ensure they like their new litter. Installing air purifiers and filters throughout your home can also keep airborne allergens to a minimum. Nutritionally, a cat with bronchitis may benefit from a limited ingredient or hypoallergenic diet. Although it's not the most common manifestation of a food allergy in cats, if your cat's bronchitis is due to an allergic response, choosing an allergy-friendly diet may help manage their symptoms.

Feline bronchitis can sound like a scary diagnosis at first. Although it is a disease process that may not be fully cured, it is one whose symptoms can be managed. If you have concerns about your cat's risk of bronchitis, speak to your veterinarian.