Making sure your cat is a happy and healthy member of your family can be difficult if your cat has a persistent cough. An all too common cause of the problem which is often side-lined is feline asthma. Despite many cat owners being apprehensive about the prospect of their cat having a lifelong condition, feline asthma is very common. Feline asthma typically develops as a hypersensitivity to inhaled allergens such as perfumes, dusty kitty litters, cigarette smoke, grass and tree pollen, mould and mildew, smoke from candles and fires, and dust mites.
In many ways, feline asthma is similar to human asthma, displaying similar side effects and symptoms. In people childhood viral infections increases the risk of asthma, and while this is also suspected in cats exposed to viruses as kittens, it has not been proven. Despite being incurable, feline asthma is controllable and need not be a major health problem for your cat.
How does feline asthma effect my cat’s body?
Richard Goldstein1 , DVM, associate professor of small animal medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, describes asthma as a constriction of the airways, or ‘bronchi’: the two narrow tubes that lead directly from the trachea to the lungs.
Your cat is more likely to show signs of asthma between the ages of 1 and 10 years of age. However, kittens that are coughing usually don’t have asthma, and should be checked for parasites or an anatomical defect called a nasopharyngeal polyp. Asthma does not typically develop for the first time in very old kitties: these cats usually have a separate cause of coughing that will need to be diagnosed by your veterinarian.
Once exposed to allergens, cats with feline asthma develop inflammation and excessive mucus in their airways, resulting in coughing, wheezing, and general respiratory distress during an asthma attack. Coughing due to feline asthma can often be misinterpreted by cat owners as ‘hacking up a hairball’.
Dr. Goldstein describes the typical onset of an asthma attack as follows: “The cat is at rest, not doing anything at all, or else it’s playing and suddenly stops. Its breathing becomes more rapid, and the cat starts trying to take in air with its mouth open. Its chest and abdomen move up and down abnormally, the breathing is shallow and rapid. If you listen closely you may be able to detect a wheezing sound as the cat exhales.”
In addition to coughing, a cat with feline asthma can exhibit other symptoms, including open mouth breathing, excessive respiratory effort, faster breathing, loud breathing, wheezing, altered purr, vomiting, decreased appetite, hiding, restlessness, and blue gums. Severe asthma attacks can be fatal, but needn’t be if you’re aware of the signs. If you notice your cat exhibiting any of these symptoms, contact your local veterinary office as soon as possible.
Understanding your cat’s condition
Feline asthma can range in different levels of severity. If symptoms only occur intermittently, and do not affect your cat’s lifestyle they would be seen as having a mild case. This is in comparison to severe cases, when your cat has significant debilitating symptoms on a daily basis. Regardless of the severity of your cat’s symptoms you should always seek veterinary advice for a full diagnosis.
In order to diagnose your cat with asthma, a veterinarian must rule out other causes by testing. Other causes of coughing could also include parasites such as lung worms or heartworms, cancer, and of course, hairball retching.
Testing for feline asthma includes a physical exam, chest x-ray, and testing for parasites with blood or faecal exams. Your veterinarian will also ask you specific questions about your cat’s history and any changes to their daily routine. Your veterinarian may also recommend additional blood work or other diagnostic tests. Your cat’s response to therapy will be required to confirm a diagnosis of feline asthma, as coughing should stop in less than 24 hours after starting steroids.
Treating feline asthma
Feline asthma is treated with an anti-inflammatory dosage of steroids. Your vet will recommend starting oral steroids at a higher dosage and then taper down to the lowest dose possible to control the cough. It is likely that affected cats will need steroid treatment for the rest of their life. If you are unable to administer pills to your cat at home, intermittent injections with a long-lasting steroid can be used, though this treatment is less than ideal. The drawback to steroids therapy is negative side effects, including predisposition to diabetes, cushings, pancreatitis, and weight gain. Inhaled steroids are also available and are administered via an inhaler that is designed specifically for cats. This treatment is considered superior as the treatment is delivered straight to the lungs, however it can be expensive and is not available in all areas.
Bronchodilators, drugs that help to relax the airway muscles, are typically only administered in the event of a severe asthma attack. With a rapid onset but short lived effect, they are an effective treatment for sudden attacks but cannot be used as a long term solution to your cat’s asthma.
How can I help my asthmatic cat?
Pet owners can help asthmatic cats by limiting their exposure to inhaled irritants, if possible. Encase pet bedding with special covers, such as plastic, permeable synthetic fibers, non-woven synthetics, and finely woven fabrics. Minimize litter dust by using dust and fragrance free litter. Minimize an asthmatic cat’s exposure to cigarette smoke, utilize a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air purifier) filter. Keep asthmatic cats indoors to minimize exposure to pollens, and vacuum weekly. These simple steps will ensure your cat lives a happy and healthy life, where asthma is not a problem.
1 Dr. Goldstein (2014) Feline Asthma: A Risky Business for Many Cats Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine website: http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/Health_Information/Asthma.cfm
Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary at UC Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital, and writes for multiple online and print publications.