For cats with asthma, just as with humans, the airways in the lungs become restricted and inflamed. If a cat coughs, wheezes, has a hard time breathing, or breathes with his mouth open, he might have asthma. Veterinarians don’t always know what causes it (allergies are suspected) and there is no clear cure, but there are medications that can help your cat breathe easier.
Feline asthma is a respiratory condition that involves constriction and inflammation of the airways in the lungs. Any cat can develop asthma. The underlying cause of asthma remains unknown, but allergens have been implicated in some cases. When a cat develops asthma, mucus forms in the respiratory tract, and the airway walls swell and spasm. These changes can cause wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Without treatment — as for humans — a severe asthma attack can even be fatal.
Signs and Identification
Signs of asthma in cats include:
- Lethargy (tiredness)
- Open-mouth breathing
- Difficulty breathing
Clinical signs of feline asthma can come on very quickly or develop more slowly over a period of days or weeks. Mild clinical signs may be limited to occasional coughing. Some cats also vomit or may stop eating. A severe asthma attack can be associated with signs such as open-mouth breathing. An extended neck and exaggerated chest movements may also be evident as the cat struggles to breathe.
Severe asthma attacks are considered medical emergencies. If you suspect that your cat is having breathing problems, contact your veterinarian immediately.
The clinical signs associated with feline asthma can resemble those of other respiratory problems. For example, feline heartworm disease can cause asthma-like clinical signs known as HARD (heartworm-associated respiratory disease). Heart disease, bronchitis, and respiratory infections can cause clinical signs similar to those of feline asthma.
Unfortunately, no single test can diagnose feline asthma. Diagnosis often starts by evaluating a cat’s medical history for episodes of occasional coughing, wheezing, or abnormal breathing.
Physical examination may reveal a cough when the throat is rubbed and abnormal sounds when your veterinarian listens to your cat’s lungs using a stethoscope. In some cases, wheezing and abnormal lung sounds can even be heard without a stethoscope.
An X-ray of a cat with asthma may show an abnormal pattern in the lungs that is typical of the disease. Unfortunately, not all asthmatic cats' X-rays will be so diagnostic. Many feline asthma sufferers cannot be diagnosed on the basis of X-rays.
One frustrating problem when attempting to diagnose feline asthma is that symptoms are frequently episodic so that a veterinarian may have difficulty diagnosing a patient’s condition, either through physical examination or X-rays — that is, unless the condition is currently fully manifesting itself at the time the physical examination and X-rays are undertaken.
Asthma can look similar to other respiratory diseases such as heartworm infection, heart disease, and respiratory infection, so veterinarians may recommend both basic and specific tests to help rule out those conditions.
All breeds of cats are susceptible, but Siamese cats seem to have a higher incidence of this disease. Genetics may therefore play a role.
There is no cure for asthma, but treatment focuses on administering medications that open up (or dilate) the airways, reduce inflammation, and promote easier breathing.
Treatment generally focuses on acute episodes (“asthma attacks”): If severe, emergency veterinary attention is required to administer medications to help dilate the cat’s airways, reduce inflammation, minimize stress, and generally help the patient breathe more easily. Oxygen therapy is sometimes necessary as well. Hospitalization for continued treatment and observation is sometimes necessary.
Many cats, however, can be managed medically at home through simple daily treatments that can reduce the frequency of acute asthmatic crises (asthma attacks). Oral drugs and even inhalant therapies can be used either daily or only when acute crises occur. Not every cat is amenable to inhalant therapy (a mask needs to be placed over his nose and mouth) but most cats can be acclimated to this approach, thereby facilitating feline asthma management.
Although the underlying cause of asthma is often unknown, some veterinarians recommend trying to remove potential allergens like dust, aerosols, and smoke from the cat’s environment. A common source of dust may even include cat litter. Fortunately, low-dust brands of cat litter are available at many pet stores and retail outlets. In addition, using an air purifier that contains a HEPA filter may help remove allergens from the air.
It’s worth noting that a significant percentage of cats never need to be treated at all given the mildness of their disease.
There is no known means of prevention of this disease process save the elimination of inciting causes — most often unidentifiable — from the environment.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.