An episode of feline asthma may initially be discounted as just another hairball or a bit of food going down the "wrong pipe." Recurrent episodes of coughing, however, are likely to catch an owner's attention. In its early stages, asthma can cause a cat to cough and then appear fine, but it is a progressive condition that requires treatment. A coughing cat should be examined by a veterinarian to diagnose the issue and ensure appropriate management of the condition.
What Is Asthma?
Much like human asthma, feline asthma is an allergen-driven respiratory condition that causes distressed breathing. Some cats' immune systems overreact to an inhaled allergen. The resulting immune reaction causes excess production of substances in the bloodstream that cause intense inflammation within the airways.
Symptoms of Asthma in Cats
Early asthma symptoms may be difficult to detect, and serious attacks may not happen frequently, making it easy to write them off as hairballs. Symptoms tend to become more prevalent and more noticeable over time.
One symptom that differentiates feline asthma from hairballs or other physical obstructions is the sound of faint wheezing when your cat breathes, which may be more audible after vigorous play or running.
Swollen and inflamed airways secrete excess mucus and then become constricted, making it difficult for the cat to breathe. As a result of decreased oxygen intake, the cat will become tired quickly.
During a full-blown asthma attack, a cat will tend to hunch low to the ground with its neck and head extended to help clear the airway of mucus. The cat may gag, sneeze, cough, or even vomit. The cat may or may not expel foamy mucus.
Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, and a cat in a full-blown attack should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Even a cat showing one or two of the early symptoms should be examined. Once diagnosed, there are things you can do to help your cat during one of these attacks.
Causes of Asthma
Many of the same allergens responsible for human asthma attacks can also trigger feline asthma attacks, including:
- Cigarette smoke
- Mildew or mold
- Household chemicals
- Cat litter particulates
Stress can either cause or exacerbate a feline asthma attack. For that reason, you should always try to remain as calm as possible when your cat suffers an attack.
Diagnosing Asthma in Cats
Your veterinarian will use several diagnostic tests to diagnose asthma in your cat. The most common diagnostic tools include:
- Blood Tests: An array of blood tests will help your veterinarian assess your cat's overall health, rule out other diseases, and identify the presence of inflammation in your cat's body.
- Chest X-ray: Also called a thoracic radiograph, this diagnostic will help your veterinarian visualize any abnormalities within the lungs, such as areas of chronic inflammation or unusual fluid accumulation. Sometimes cats with asthma will have bright branching patterns seen in their X-rays. This is indicative of an accumulation of inflammatory cells within the airways.
- Bronchoalveolar Lavage (BAL): This procedure is performed by inserting an endotracheal tube into the cat's trachea under general anesthesia. This allows your veterinarian to directly take a sample of the fluids present within your cat's airways. Aside from asthma, the BAL may diagnose other conditions of the lungs. The downside of BAL is that it requires general anesthesia, which is not recommended for a cat experiencing severe respiratory distress or illness.
The basic and most common management strategies for feline asthma include a steroid to help reduce inflammation within the airways and a bronchodilator to keep the airways open so that the cat can more easily breathe.
Sometimes these medications are given orally, but another form of administration is with a metered-dose inhaler, such as Flovent, given through a special mask. The Aerokat Feline Aerosol Chamber was developed for this purpose. The advantage of aerosol steroid administration over pills and injections is that it goes directly into the lungs, rather than throughout the body, thus creating fewer side effects.
If your cat is having more severe attacks than you consider normal, visit your veterinarian for re-evaluation and possible adjustment of medications.
Prognosis for Cats With Asthma
Feline asthma is a chronic, progressive disease with no cure. Your veterinarian will work to develop an ongoing medication management plan to keep your cat as comfortable as possible for its lifetime.
Once your cat is diagnosed with feline asthma, you have several options for lifestyle changes that can help reduce recurring asthma attacks, depending on the severity of the case. The first and most obvious thing you'll need to do is to try to eliminate the environmental allergens that are causing respiratory distress in your cat.
As with most feline health issues, the key to successful management of feline asthma is to know your cat well, keep your eyes and ears open for changes in the breathing, give medications as prescribed, and get veterinary care when indicated, either routine checkups or emergency intervention.
How to Prevent Asthma
A cat can become asthmatic if it lives in an environment with allergens that trigger its immune system to overreact. To reduce the risk of your cat developing asthma, take these preventative measures:
- Reduce smoking: If you smoke, you'll need to do it outdoors in the future. Better yet, consider quitting, for your health and for all the creatures who share your home.
- Eliminate mold and mildew: Conduct a deep cleaning. Although it may sound contraindicated, a steam cleaner does a good job of cleaning mold and other allergens from solid surfaces such as tile floors, shower enclosures, and walls. Professional services are indicated for cleaning central air ducts.
- Curtail dust and dust mites: Frequent vacuuming can help reduce dust and mites. Although expensive, HEPA air purifiers are excellent for removing both dust mites and mold spores from the air. Consider a room purifier in the room your cat most frequently occupies. A HEPA purifier will also help during the pollen season.
- Edit household chemicals: Use environmentally friendly cleaning products for your cats' benefit, your health, and your home environment. Ideally, refrain from using air fresheners and potpourris, scented laundry detergents, and perfumes that can cause respiratory issues in sensitive cats.
- Change cat litter: Because of the dust that rises from clay litters, most of them are not good for asthmatic cats. Consider using wood or paper-based cat litter without added fragrance. Remember that cats are often fussy about litter changes, so introduce the new litter gradually.
Feline Asthma: What You Need To Know. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Asthma and Bronchitis in Cats. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Feline Asthma: A Risky Business for Many Cats. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.