Feline Asthma in Cats

Your cat's hacking cough might not be a hairball

Kitten in mid-sneeze.

Tiffa Day/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

An episode of feline asthma may sometimes be discounted as just another hairball or possibly choking on a bit of food. Asthma can cause your cat to cough and then it will appear to be fine but it is a slowly progressing condition with no cure. A coughing cat should be examined by a veterinarian in order to diagnose the issue and ensure appropriate management of the condition.

What Is Feline Asthma?

Much like human asthma, feline asthma is an allergen-driven respiratory condition that causes distressed breathing. Some cats' immune systems over-react to an inhaled allergen. The resulting immune reaction causes an excess production of substances in the bloodstream that cause intense inflammation within the airways. Swollen and inflamed airways then secrete excess mucus and become constricted, making it difficult for the cat to breathe.

Symptoms of Feline Asthma

Early symptoms may be difficult to detect. You may hear faint wheezing, which is more audible after vigorous exercise. Your cat may seem to tire easily.

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, 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 or vomiting. The cat may or may not expel foamy mucus.

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 Feline Asthma Attacks

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 asthma attack. Many of the same allergens responsible for human asthma attacks are responsible for feline asthma attacks, including:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Mildew or mold
  • Household chemicals
  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Cat litter particulates

Diagnosing Feline Asthma

Your veterinarian will use several diagnostic tests to diagnose asthma in your cat. The most common diagnostic tools are:

  • Blood Tests: Blood tests will help your veterinarian rule out other diseases and will show if there is inflammation somewhere 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 chest radiographs. This is indicative of an accumulation of inflammatory cells within the airways. Lung over-inflation is also sometimes seen in feline asthma cases.
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage (BAL): This can be an extremely useful procedure. It 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 with severe respiratory distress or otherwise extremely ill.

Treatment

Feline asthma is a chronically progressive disease with no cure. Instead, your veterinarian will work to develop a medication management plan to keep your cat as comfortable as possible. 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 as open as possible 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, often 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 there are fewer side effects.

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.

How to Prevent Feline Asthma Attacks

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. 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.
  • 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 such as tile floors, shower enclosures, and walls. Professional services are indicated for cleaning central air ducts.
  • 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.
  • Household chemicals: Try to keep their use to a minimum. Use 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 can cause respiratory issues in sensitive 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. Consider using unscented cat 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.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.