Asthma in Felines

Your cat's hacking cough might not be a hairball

Just before sneeze
Akimasa Harada / Getty Images

A severe attack of feline asthma may sometimes be discounted as just another hairball attack or possibly choking on a bit of food. Asthma can cause your cat to cough and then it will appear to be fine. Symptoms like these need to be checked out by a veterinarian in order to eliminate asthma.

What is Feline Asthma?

Much like human asthma, feline asthma is an allergen-caused upper respiratory condition that causes distressed breathing. It is also called bronchitis or feline bronchial disease. Bronchial spasms cause the individual bronchi to constrict or tighten and the resultant swelling of surrounding tissues puts the cat into a full-blown asthma attack. Human victims of asthma will know exactly what an asthma attack feels like, as coughing quickly ensues in an effort to expel the excess mucous.

Symptoms of an Asthma Attack in Your Cat

Early symptoms may be difficult to detect. You may hear a faint wheezing, which is more audible after vigorous exercise. Your cat may seem to tire easily. Labored breathing may proceed following a serious attack.

A full-blown asthma attack may at first resemble a cat trying to cough up a hairball or possibly choking on food. With asthma attacks, the body posture is somewhat different. With asthma, the cat's body will be hunched lower to the ground and its neck and head will be extended out and down in an effort to clear the airway of mucus. The "gagging" may also be accompanied by a typical coughing sound and possibly sneezing. The cat may or may not expel foamy mucous.

These serious attacks may not happen frequently, which makes it easy to write them off as "just a hairball." Actually, they 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 Attacks in Cats

Asthmatic cats are also subject to exercise-related attacks and 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 because you can telegraph your stress to your cat. Many of the same allergens responsible for human asthma attacks are responsible for feline asthma attacks, including:

  • Smoke
  • Mildew or mold
  • Household chemicals
  • Dust
  • Pollens
  • Cat litter
  • Cold, moist air

Diagnosing Feline Asthma

Other diseases share many of the same symptoms as feline asthma, including Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, a serious disease in itself. Your veterinarian will use several diagnostic tests to eliminate those conditions. The most common diagnostic tools are:

  • Blood Tests: These are the quickest and easiest and will detect infection, which often accompanies asthmatic bronchitis. They will detect macrophages, eosinophils, neutrophils, and mast cells, which are types of blood cells that help constitute the immune system. Blood work is also useful in eliminating other diseases with the same symptoms.
  • Chest X-Ray: Also called a thoracic x-ray, this will disclose abnormalities, such as areas of chronic irritation as caused by infection, a flattened diaphragm, or unusual fluid accumulation. Evidence of heart disease may also be seen. This would not necessarily eliminate asthma, as the two sometimes go hand-in-hand. Your veterinarian may want to send the x-ray to a specialist for consultation. The x-ray is done in two stages: Lateral, with the cat on its side, and ventrodorsal, lying on the back with limbs extended out of the way. Although many cats may accede to these positions, others may need a small dose of anesthesia to perform an x-ray. Otherwise, it is harmless and painless.
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage: This is an extremely useful procedure and in itself, perfectly safe. BAL, as it is called, is performed by inserting an endotracheal tube into the trachea under general anesthesia, then fluids present in the airways of the lungs are extracted through this tube for examination. Aside from asthma, the BAL may diagnose other conditions of the lungs. The downside of BAL is that it requires a general anesthesia, which is not recommended for a cat with severe respiratory distress.

Treatment for Feline Asthma

Once your cat is diagnosed with feline asthma, you have several options for treatment, 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. Some will be easy; others more complicated or expensive. Some of the most common triggers of feline asthma include:

  • Smoking: If you smoke, you'll need to do it outdoors in the future. Better yet, consider quitting, for your own health and for all those creatures who share your home.
  • Fireplace smoke: A common problem for asthmatics. Old-fashioned wood-burning fireplaces can be converted to gas/log. Scented candles and plug-in air fresheners are particularly bad for both human and feline asthmatics, as is incensed. 
  • Mildew and mold: 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 like tile floors, shower enclosures, and walls. Professional services are indicated for cleaning central air ducts.
  • Dust and dust mites: First, step up your use of the vacuum cleaner. Consider replacing curtains with attractive blinds. Think about hardwood floors or tile instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. Although expensive, Hepa air purifiers are excellent for removing both dust mites and mold spores from the air. If you cannot afford a whole-house installation or live in a rental, consider a room purifier in the room your cat most frequently occupies. A Hepa purifier will also help during pollen season. 
  • Household chemicals: Try to keep their use to a minimum. User environmentally friendly products for your cats' benefit, your own health, and your home environment. This includes eschewing most plug-in air fresheners and stove potpourris, which often cause respiratory distress in cats.
  • Cat litter: Because of the dust that rises from clay litters, most of them are not good for asthmatic cats. Some owners have used Feline Pine with good results, although some cats are allergic to the odor of pine. The same applies to scented silicone crystal litter. You definitely want to stick with unscented litter, and trial and error may be your last resource. Remember that cats are often fussy about litter changes, so introduce the new litter gradually.

Medications for Asthmatic Cats

Hopefully, your cat was diagnosed in the early stages of asthma, and not after a panicky trip to the emergency vet clinic in a full-blown asthmatic attack. Depending on the severity of your cat's lung involvement, it most likely will be treated with a combination of a daily steroid, either by inhaler or pill, and a bronchodilator inhaler for use as needed. Conventional veterinary practice is the administration of prednisone, in pill form, and spaced out three times a day. It can also be administered with transdermal gel, or through injection. All three of these methods have their drawbacks.

Another form of administration is with a metered-dose inhaler, often Flovent, given through a special mask. The Aerokat Feline Aerosol Chamber was developed for this purpose and is highly regarded by veterinarians who are familiar with it. The advantage of aerosol steroid administration over pills and injections is that it goes directly into the lungs, rather than throughout the body, thus there are fewer side effects.

The most commonly-prescribed bronchodilator is albuterol, which can also be administered through a feline aerosol container, such as Aerokat. Albuterol is only given as needed, when an asthmatic cat starts coughing and wheezing, and should not be used routinely. Excessive use can actually cause bronchial spasms. If your cat is having more severe attacks than you consider normal, it should be taken back to your veterinarian for re-evaluation and possible adjustment of medications.

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.