Feline asthma: what you need to know

Wheezing, coughing and laboured breathing are among the signs of this condition.

Cats of any age, breed or gender may develop respiratory conditions such as feline asthma. The condition, which occurs when the airways in the lungs are restricted, isn’t uncommon. An estimated 85,000 cats are affected in Britain – yet milder cases can often go undiagnosed for years.

The causes, symptoms and treatments of feline asthma aren’t very different from the human variety. It happens when the small passageways of a cat’s lungs become chronically inflamed. If these passageways thicken and constrict even further, it becomes very difficult for the cat to breathe, leading to an asthma attack.

The exact mechanism of feline asthma isn’t totally understood, however. In most cases, it is triggered by an allergic response to environmental irritants such as pollen, dust, cigarette smoke, household sprays, perfumes and even some types of cat litter. But, sometimes, no allergic cause can be found at all.

Signs of feline asthma

Symptoms to watch out for in your cat are similar to those experienced by human asthmatics. In particular, keep an eye out for:

  • Persistent coughing or bouts of coughing
  • Fast or laboured breathing
  • Wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Difficulty breathing or trouble catching their breath.

You might also notice that your cat is less active, or breathing more heavily or faster than usual. There might be an evident change in the breathing pattern – your cat may breathe from the abdomen, using tummy muscles more, as opposed to the chest. Sometimes the signs are quite low-key over days, weeks or even months. Then, suddenly, your cat has an asthma attack – this is usually what prompts a visit to the vet.

Diagnosing respiratory conditions

If you think your cat might be suffering from asthma or another respiratory condition, speak to your vet, who will be able to do some tests to confirm a diagnosis – these will also rule out other diseases. Feline asthma is often confused with furballs, when groomed hair irritates and tickles the airways, resulting in a cough-gag-retch symptom.

The types of test a vet might conduct include:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-rays – to look for abnormalities in the lungs
  • Bronchoscopy – sending a small camera (endoscope) into the lungs to check the small airways
  • Airway washes – performed under anaesthetic, this procedure allows cells and fluid from the small airways to be collected. The vet will then check these for inflammatory cells, bacteria, cancer or other changes. Airway washes help to differentiate between asthma and chronic bronchitis, and can highlight other problems, such as lung infections.

In some cases, some or all of these investigations may be needed.

Treatment for feline asthma

Many asthmatic cats need lifelong medication, given intermittently or continuously, depending on the severity of the condition. Fortunately, successful management allows most cats to lead normal, happy lives.

Secondary infections (with bacteria or mycoplasmas) also need to be identified and treated. If you’re able to identify what causes your cat’s asthma, you should be able to remove it. For example:

  • Manage obesity – since this can worsen breathing difficulties
  • Eliminate potential irritants in the house – this includes things like smoking inside, perfumes or sprays, dusty cat litter, etc
  • The condition can be seasonal in some cats or only in some rooms, so try to track down any irritants or allergens that trigger the symptoms in your cat.

If you’re unable to identify – or remove – the things that are causing the asthma, your cat will need symptomatic treatment, which is based around anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator therapy.

Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to reduce the inflammation and come in the form of corticosteroids. They can be administered in the following ways:

  • Tablets or liquid given daily (or every second day) – your cat will need a low dose to control their symptoms
  • Injections – some of which act over one to three days, while others act for up to six weeks
  • Inhalation – the same metered-dose inhalers used by humans can also be given to cats. These contain steroids and are administered using a ‘spacer’ device, the same way as with human babies and young children. Inhalers allow the steroids to reach the lungs directly.

Bronchodilator therapy may also be prescribed for cats with asthma. It uses drugs that relax the small muscles around the airways, helping them to dilate. The drugs are often used with corticosteroids and are given in the same three ways as anti-inflammatory drugs, above.

If you notice any of the symptoms above or are concerned your cat may be suffering from respiratory problems visit the vet immediately.

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