Breathe Easy: A Cat Owner’s Guide to Feline Asthma

by | Jun 10, 2024

, Breathe Easy: A Cat Owner’s Guide to Feline Asthma, The Comforted Kitty

Liza Cahn, DVM

Asthma is a well-known lung disease in people, but it is also the most commonly diagnosed respiratory disorder in cats, affecting one to five percent of our feline friends. If your cat is coughing or wheezing, read on as we explain how to understand, recognize, and manage feline asthma. While this condition can be overwhelming, it’s an important disease for pet parents to have on their radar. Early diagnosis and treatment can help both you and your furry family member breathe easier. 

What is Feline Asthma? 

Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the lungs that affects the airways. When a cat with asthma is exposed to a trigger (such as dust, smoke, or other allergens), their body mounts an allergic reaction. This causes the airways to become inflamed and constricted (narrowed), making it difficult to breathe. More specifically, the three features of asthma in cats include:

  • Inflammation of the airways
  • Constriction of the airways, causing decreased airflow
  • Increased responsiveness of the airways to irritants or stress

Feline asthma can range in severity from an occasional cough to life-threatening respiratory distress. Asthma is most often seen in young to middle-aged cats. While the underlying cause is often unknown, obesity, exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke, and genetics can all play a role in the development of asthma. While there is no cure, with proper management, most cats with asthma can live happy and comfortable lives. 

Clinical Signs of Asthma in Cats

, Breathe Easy: A Cat Owner’s Guide to Feline Asthma, The Comforted Kitty

The symptoms of asthma in cats can range in severity. Coughing is the most common symptom, yet is often mistaken or written off as hairballs. Other common signs of asthma in cats include:

  • Intermittent or persistent coughing (see this video for an example)
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid, labored, or open-mouth breathing
  • Gagging or vomiting 
  • Lethargy and bluish gums due to lack of oxygen

Just like people, cats can have chronic low-grade symptoms that occur from time to time, or an acute asthma attack. In this case, you may notice your cat in a hunched posture with their neck extended, and they may wheeze, cough, gag, vomit, pant, or sneeze. This is considered a medical emergency, and urgent veterinary care is required. 

How is Asthma Diagnosed?

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your cat, it’s important to take them to a vet as soon as possible. In addition to getting a thorough medical history and nose-to-tail physical exam, your vet will perform several tests to rule out other possible causes and diagnose asthma. This may include: 

  • Bloodwork: While there is no specific blood test for asthma, bloodwork can help your vet assess your cat’s overall health, look for evidence of inflammation or infection, and rule out other possible causes of their symptoms. A specific type of white blood cell (eosinophil) may be elevated in some cats with asthma. 
  • Radiographs (X-rays): X-rays of the chest allow your vet to evaluate your cat’s heart and lungs. Characteristic patterns associated with asthma include thickening or mineralization of the bronchi and bronchioles (smaller airways) and hyperinflation of the lungs. 
  • Fecal exam: This test can rule out lungworm, a parasite that can mimic symptoms of asthma.
  • Heartworm test: Heartworm disease can also cause respiratory problems, so it’s important to exclude this possibility by running a heartworm test.
  • Tracheal wash or bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL): These procedures involve collecting samples from the airways to examine for inflammatory cells or infectious agents. They are performed under general anesthesia. 
  • Bronchoscopy: This procedure involves inserting a thin, flexible tube with a camera into the airways to visualize inflammation or other abnormalities, and allows for the collection of samples for further analysis. This procedure also requires general anesthesia. 
  • Allergy testing: In some cases, your vet may recommend allergy testing to help determine which specific allergens may be most problematic for your cat. 

Treatment of Feline Asthma

, Breathe Easy: A Cat Owner’s Guide to Feline Asthma, The Comforted Kitty

Cat asthma is a progressive disease with no cure; however, there are many tools available to help pet parents successfully manage it. These involve medications to reduce inflammation and open up the airways, and lifestyle changes to decrease exposure to allergens. 

The specific treatment plan for your cat may vary depending on the severity of their asthma, response to therapy, and owner preference. If your cat has a severe asthma attack, they may need to be hospitalized in an oxygen cage for treatment until their breathing improves.

Medications

There are two main types of medications used to treat asthma in cats. 

  • Bronchodilators: These medications, such as albuterol (Ventolin), open the airways making it easier for your cat to breathe. 
  • Corticosteroids: Potent anti-inflammatory drugs, such as prednisolone or fluticasone (Flovent), reduce inflammation in the airways and are the cornerstone of managing feline asthma. Advair is an inhaler that contains both a bronchodilator and steroid. 

These medications are available in several forms, including pills, inhalers, and injections. Some medications will need to be given every day, while others may only be needed if your cat has a flare-up.  

Oral Versus Inhaled Medications

Cats have a reputation for being difficult to medicate, therefore the best type of medication may depend on you and your cat. Sometimes a combination of different types of medication may be used. 

  • Oral medications: Medications can be given by mouth as a pill or compounded into a flavored liquid. These medications are effective and easy to use, but have a higher risk of side effects. For example, steroids can cause increased thirst, urination, and appetite, and if used long-term, increase your cat’s risk of developing diabetes. 
  • Inhalers: Inhalers deliver high doses of medication directly to the lungs, which is generally more effective and helps minimize potential side effects. However, teaching your cat how to tolerate an inhaler requires patience and commitment. Inhaled medications are also more expensive upfront than pills. 
  • Injections: Injectable steroids, such as Depo-Medrol, provide long-lasting relief for weeks to months, and may be easier to administer in some cats. However, they are also expensive and have a high risk of side effects. In general injections are used less frequently. 

Environmental Management

Another important part of managing feline asthma is making changes to your home to reduce your cat’s exposure to allergens.

  • Decrease exposure to common allergens (such as dust mites, pollen, and mold) by washing bedding frequently, vacuuming regularly, and using air purifiers.
  • Avoid exposing your cat to secondhand smoke, perfumes, and scented cleaning products. 
  • Use an unscented low-dust kitty litter.
  • Keep your cat at a healthy weight by meal feeding a WSAVA-compliant balanced diet and providing opportunities for regular exercise.
  • Minimize stressful situations and provide your cat with a calm and enriching environment.
  • In some cases a hypoallergenic diet may be beneficial. 

Training Your Cat to Use an Inhaler 

Inhalers are generally considered the safest and most effective way to manage asthma in cats. Training your cat to use an inhaler may seem like a daunting task, but with patience and positive reinforcement, most cats do very well. 

In order to give your cat inhaled medication, you will need to use a spacer device, such as Aerokat. A spacer is a tube or chamber with a comfortable facemask on one end and a hole for the inhaler on the other. When the inhaler is pressed, medication is released into the spacer instead of directly into your cat’s mouth. You will then hold the mask in place for a certain amount of time, watching your cat breathe in and out, to make sure they are getting the correct dosage. 

Your vet can help guide you on how to train your cat to use an inhaler. Begin by introducing the spacer without medication, allowing your cat to sniff and explore it, and rewarding them with treats and praise. As your cat becomes more comfortable with the spacer, gently hold the mask against their face for a few seconds, rewarding them immediately. Gradually increase the duration, working up to the required inhalation time. Once your cat tolerates the mask, introduce them to the medication by puffing it into the chamber. Let them get used to the sound and smell before attaching the mask and having them inhale the medication. Reward them generously for their cooperation. Cats are creatures of habit, so it is often helpful to give them their medication in the same place and at the same time every day.

If your cat seems hesitant or uncomfortable, go back a few steps. As this process can take several weeks, your vet may prescribe oral medications to help manage their symptoms during this time. If you need additional help, check out these videos or contact your vet. 

Living With a Cat With Asthma 

Asthma can be a challenging and overwhelming condition for many pet parents. While there is no cure for this chronic disese, medications and environmental modifications can help control the severity and frequency of asthma attacks. If left untreated, damage to the airway can become permanent or even fatal. However, when asthma is well managed, most cats are able to lead normal, active lives. So take a deep breath; you’ve got this.

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