What is feline asthma?
Feline asthma is very similar to human asthma, where the airways in the lungs become irritated and inflamed, leading to edema, swelling, mucus production, muscle spasms, and constriction of the airways. In some cases, ulcers can form in the lungs and cause permanent scarring. Inhaled allergens are the main cause, with stress contributing to the disease process. The average age of diagnosis is around four years old, and certain breeds like the Siamese cat may be predisposed to developing asthma. Feline asthma is a chronic condition, but acute flare-ups can occur and can be very dangerous as it prevents normal breathing. There is no cure, but asthma can be treated and managed with medications, allowing your feline friend to live a long, active life.
What are the signs of feline asthma?
The following symptoms are common with asthma, although sometimes the only sign is an intermittent, chronic cough. Coughing in cats is often confused with vomiting or gagging, as they will often make the same sounds and sit in a similar posture (hunched over with their head stretched out). Take a video of these episodes to show to your veterinarian if your cat is demonstrating this behaviour without producing any vomit.
Other symptoms include difficulty breathing or rapid breathing, wheezing, open mouth breathing (panting), and exercise intolerance. These symptoms may not be present all the time, and your cat may not display all of these signs even if they have asthma. It’s important to recognize if your cat is displaying any of these symptoms so you can talk to about it with your veterinarian. Severe difficulty breathing is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention.
How is it diagnosed?
When a cat is coughing or having difficulty breathing, it’s important to be sure of the diagnosis. Other diseases such as bacterial or parasitic infections, heart disease, and cancer can have similar symptoms but would require different treatment. Try to get a video of your cat coughing so you can show your veterinarian exactly what’s happening. Your vet will listen for abnormal sounds in the lungs with their stethoscope. They may recommend blood work to look for inflammatory cells or radiographs to look for the patterns in the lungs that are characteristic of asthma. Some asthmatic cats will have normal looking radiographs, especially if it’s early in the disease process. With that being said it is still important to take an x-ray to see how their lungs look and to ensure the symptoms are not due to any other illness.
There are a few diagnostic procedures that can be done under general anesthesia that are generally recommended when more information is needed to accurately diagnose the condition. The bronchoalveolar lavage may be recommended to look for certain cells in the mucus of the airways which would be consistent with the diagnosis of asthma. Bronchoscopy (advancing a small camera through the mouth and into the lungs) is another procedure that may help diagnose asthma. It allows the veterinarian to look directly at the tissue inside the lungs to determine if they appear healthy. CT scans (using x-rays to create 3-D images) are another way to diagnose asthma and may help rule out other diseases.
What is the treatment?
The most important thing in the treatment of asthma is to control the inflammation. In the early stages of treating your cat’s asthma, your veterinarian may prescribe oral or injectable corticosteroids which will act quickly to reduce irritation in the lungs. Long term use of steroids is not recommended because cats can be very sensitive and may experience negative side effects from these medications. They could also become resistant to the medication over time.
An inhalant corticosteroid is the ideal long-term treatment for feline asthma. Cats cannot be told when to inhale and can’t use the inhaler as a human can. Fortunately, there are spacers with kitty-sized masks (called the AeroKat) that can be used to ensure your cat gets the appropriate amount of medication. Inhalant bronchodilators can be used in combination with the steroid inhaler, but aren’t very effective on their own. It is because they don’t reduce inflammation, they relieve the symptoms caused by constriction in the airways. If corticosteroids and bronchodilators aren’t having enough of an effect, there are other medications (such as antihistamines) that your veterinarian might prescribe to go along with the inhalers.
What can you do to help prevent asthma attacks?
Feline asthma is caused by an overreaction of your cat’s immune system to something they have inhaled. If you can find out what caused the reaction, you can minimize your cat’s contact with that trigger. It isn’t always possible to determine what causes a reaction in all cases, so here are a few general tips to prevent asthma attacks:
- Do not allow smoking in the house and try to minimize your cats’ exposure to clothes with smoky residue on it.
- Do not wear perfume or strong smelling lotions around your cat.
- Use dust-free and scent-free litter, or consider choosing a non-clay litter.
- Do not use aerosols, air fresheners, or diffusers in your home.
- Replace air filters regularly.
- Use scent-free laundry detergent and household cleaners.
- Keep your kitty fit and at a lean body condition, as obesity may contribute to the severity of the condition.
- Minimize your cat’s exposure to outside allergens such as pollen, grass, dust, and mould.
If your cat is having a severe asthma attack and is struggling to breathe, stay calm and give any prescribed inhalant medications. Only do so if it’s possible to do without causing more stress to your cat. Do not give oral medications because they might choke on it! Try to keep your cat in a well-ventilated area, away from any irritants that may make the attack worse. Contact your veterinarian and take your pet to your regular vet or the emergency veterinarian as soon as possible. Difficulty breathing can be a life-threatening emergency and may require immediate veterinary care.
Written by: Alicia Naundorf, RVT