Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

A severe attack of feline asthma may sometimes be discounted as just another hairball attack, or possibly choking on a bit of food. The cat will cough for awhile, the concerned caregiver will comfort him, then he will appear to be fine. But symptoms like these need to be checked out by a veterinarian, to eliminate asthma.

What is feline asthma, Cat Asthma?

Also known as feline bronchial disease, allergic bronchitis, allergic airway disease and allergic asthma), asthma is a non infectious respiratory condition that is characterised by acute constriction of the lower airways, resulting in coughing and respiratory distress. Asthma is one of the most common causes of respiratory diseases in cats, affecting around one in 100. Attacks may range from mild to severe and life threatening.

Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

The condition is triggered by inhalation of an allergen. Common allergens include pollen, perfume, cigarette smoke, smoke from household fires, mould, household sprays (hairspray, air fresheners etc) and dust from cat litter. Cats of all age and breed can be affected, however Siamese tend to be over-represented which suggests a genetic predisposition. Obese cats are also at greater risk of developing asthma.

Read more: Feline Asthma:  A Common Allergic Respiratory Disease In Cats

What Causes Asthma in Cats?

While there are a number of factors that contribute to asthma in cats, it is thought to develop as a result of allergic bronchitis. Allergic bronchitis occurs when the airways in a cat's lungs become inflamed due to an inhaled allergen or other substance that stimulates the immune system.

Common factors that can contribute to the severity of an asthma attack include:

  • Allergens, including pollens, molds, dust from cat litter, cigarette smoke, perfume and certain foods
  • Pre-existing heart conditions or illnesses
  • Parasites
  • Extreme stress
  • Obesity
Asthma-like symptoms in cats can also be associated with other disease, including heartworm, respiratory parasites, tumors, heart failure and pneumonia.

What are the symptoms of feline asthma, cat asthma?

Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

  • Dry, hacking cough which may be mistaken for hairballs or gagging.
  • Wheezing.
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea).
  • Sitting with the shoulders hunched over, neck extended with rapid open mouthed inhalations and exhalations (tachypnea).
  • Lethargy.
  • Fatigue.
  • Exercise avoidance.
Symptoms may be mild or severe. In mildly affected cats they may cough of wheeze occasionally. Severely affected cats may cough and wheeze daily, leading to airway constriction and open mouthed breathing/panting. A severe asthma attack can lead to death.

How is feline asthma, cat asthma diagnosed?

A series of tests may be required to diagnose allergic lung disease in the cat.

The minimum diagnostic tests include a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistries, fecal exam and urinalysis. These tests will assess the general health of the cat and may provide clues as to the underlying cause. One particular type of white blood cell, the eosinophil, is commonly associated with allergic events or parasitic disease; its presence supports a tentative diagnosis of asthma. In some cases, special tests will be performed on stool samples, looking for evidence of lungworms.

Heartworm test - This depends on the geographical area, a cat experiencing breathing difficulty should be tested for feline heartworm disease.

Feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) tests - These tests are helpful in determining the overall health of the cat. FeLV and FIV are often associated with respiratory disease.

Thoracic radiography (chest X-ray) - Characteristic radiographic changes in the lungs are common in many cases of feline asthma or obstructive lung disease. X-rays can be suggestive of parasitic diseases such as heartworms or lungworms, and may be helpful to eliminate other types of heart and lung disease.

Bronchoscopy, cytology and tracheal lavage- Bronchoscopy is a procedure that allows the veterinarian to look down the airways of the anesthetized cat with a small fiberoptic scope. After a visual examination of the airway is completed, samples of the mucus lining of the bronchi may be obtained with a small cytology brush. The mucus and cells can be examined under a microscope (cytology) or cultured. With tracheal lavage, a small amount of sterile saline can be flushed into the airways and retrieved, providing samples of material from deep in the lung. This material may be cultured for microorganisms and examined under the microscope.

In some cases, an underlying cause cannot be identified, despite a complete and thorough diagnostic work-up. Even when the underlying cause is not identified, many cats can achieve a reasonable quality of life with medical management.

Some owners decline the complete work-up for a variety of reasons. In such cases, it may be acceptable to treat the cat with a course of corticosteroids ("cortisone" or "steroids") since most asthmatic cats respond favorably to these medications with few side effects. However, this approach may create two problems:

          1. Corticosteroids can worsen secondary bacterial infections; therefore, prophylactic antibiotics are reasonable in cases where a work-up cannot be performed.

          2. Cats with heartworm infections often cough like cats with asthma and will respond temporarily to corticosteroids. Without an appropriate workup, cats that live in areas where heartworm disease is common may be misdiagnosed as having asthma when in fact they have heartworm disease.

Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma Treatment

Feline Asthma, Cat Asthma: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment
  • Avoidance - Any factor known to trigger or aggravate breathing problems should be avoided. In some cases, this may mean trying different brands of cat litter, eliminating cigarette smoke from the home, etc. The previous list (see "Causes") details some factors that should be considered. It is important to pay close attention to environmental factors that may aggravate or worsen the condition.
  • Bronchodilators - These drugs are used to open up the airway and allow the cat to move air more freely. They should be used faithfully and as directed to obtain maximum effect.
  • Corticosteroids - Glucocorticoids, a class of steroids have a beneficial effect on decreasing inmedicationsflammation, dilating the airway, and decreasing mucus production. In many cats, they are given daily. When the cat's temperament is a concern, long-acting injections can be given as an alternative to pills. These drugs have potential for some side effects and should not be withdrawn abruptly or given without careful monitoring through routine blood and urine tests.
  • Removing as many common triggers as you can from your cat's environment will be recommended to reduce exposure. This includes avoiding using scented products and airborne particles such as dust, smoking outside, switching to a dust free type of cat litter (silicone and paper pellets are low in dust).
  • Reduce stress in your home.
  • If your cat is overweight, a carefully monitored weight loss regime may be necessary. This should be monitored with your veterinarian as sudden weight loss can result in feline hepatic lipidosis.
  • Emergency treatment of an asthmatic attack may require the use of bronchodilators, oxygen cage therapy, rapid-acting glucocorticoids, and epinephrine. If your cat has heart disease, the attending veterinarian should be advised since epinephrine should be avoided.
  • In an emergency, get your cat to the closest vet immediately. You will not be able to treat this at home. Your veterinarian will usually inject a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation and use a bronchodilator to help open the airway. Ephedrine may be given in a life threatening attack.

What Should I Do If I Think My Cat Has Asthma?

Visit your veterinarian immediately if you think your cat has asthma. He or she will perform a physical examination and most likely recommend diagnostic tests to find out what's causing the problem.

How can I recognize an asthma attack in my cat?

Early symptoms may be difficult to detect. You may hear a faint wheezing, which is more audible after vigorous exercise. Your cat may seem to tire easily. Labored breathing may proceed a serious attack.
A full-blown asthma attack may at first resemble a cat trying to cough up a hairball, or possibly choking on food. However, the body posture is somewhat different. With asthma, the cat's body will be hunched lower to the ground and his neck and head will be extended out and down in an effort to clear the airway of mucous. The "gagging" may also be accompanied by a typical coughing sound, and possibly sneezing. The cat may or may not expel foamy mucous.

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.

What allergens are more likely to trigger an asthma attack in cats?

Again, these are many of the same allergens responsible for human asthma attacks:
  • Smoke
  • Mildew or Mold
  • Household Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Pollens
  • Cat Litter
  • Cold, Moist Air
Asthmatic cats are also subject to exercise-related attacks, and 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 attack, because you can "telegraph" your stress to your cat.