Have you noticed your cat coughing? Or having a little breathing difficulty? These are symptoms of a wider problem, and they may have asthma - cats can get it too!
Feline asthma is not too dissimilar to that in humans. It is defined as chronic inflammation within the lining of the airways. This inflammation leads to excessive mucus production and potential narrowing of the airways, combined which may lead to chronic coughing and breathing difficulties.
There’s conflicting evidence on the exact cause of feline asthma, but is thought to be linked to environmental allergens, like dust, smoke, air fresheners and other irritants. In some cases viral infections may also play a role in triggering feline asthma.
What are the signs of feline asthma?
The clinical signs of feline asthma range from mild to very severe, and unfortunately in very severe situations can result in death.
Cats with feline asthma often develop a cough which may come and go or can be chronic. The type of cough associated with feline asthma can vary in its presentation. It may be soft or harsh, they may produce mucus and swallow after coughing. After an intense period of coughing your cat may also gag or start retching.
In the more serious cases cats may develop breathing difficulties. Their respiratory rate may increase, and you may see them breathing faster than usual. They may also use more effort to take in each breath, their abdomen (stomach) will visibly move in and out prominently with each breath. In very extreme cases they may breath through their mouth or appear to be panting, if you ever notice these signs you must get to a vet as soon as possible as this is considered an emergency.
How do I find out if my cat has feline asthma?
If you notice any of the clinical signs discussed above it is essential that you take a visit to the vets. Your vet will start with a full physical examination of your cat, including listening to their chest with a stethoscope. Sometimes cats with asthma will have crackles or wheezes on thoracic auscultation, and this increases your vets suspicion of feline asthma.
To help investigate if anything is going on inside the lungs, your vet is likely going to suggest performing x-rays, and potentially some blood tests as well. Some cats with asthma will have changes on these x-rays but others may present unchanged, even if they do have asthma. For further diagnostic investigations your vet may wish to take samples from the respiratory tracts using specialised equipment, this is known as bronchoalveolar lavage.
What is the treatment of feline asthmas?
If your cat is showing severe signs of feline asthmas, such as breathing difficulties (aka an asthma attack), they will likely require oxygen therapy until they settle or receive medications to help them.
Cats that have very mild asthma may not require any medications at all, but they still need regular vet visits to monitor their progress as feline asthma can progress rapidly at any stage of the disease.
For those cats that have more moderate symptoms may require long term medications, commonly corticosteroids. Steroids have anti-inflammatory properties which reduce the severity of inflammation present within the lungs, therefore reducing the severity of clinical signs.
Steroids can be administered through an inhaler specifically designed for cats, very similar to that used in children with asthma. If your cat does not tolerate an inhaler steroids can be administered in tablet form.
Your vet may also prescribe medications known as bronchodilators, which help open up the airways.
What can I do to help my cat?
On top of regular vet visits and required medications, reducing your cat's exposure to environmental irritants that are potentially triggering can help reduce the onset of clinical signs. Common allergens include those listed below, but can be triggered by many other irritants.
Dust (flea powder, carpet cleaner).
Sprays (flea products, household polishes).
Cat litter (dusty)
Smoke (cigarette, atmospheric pollution).
Scents (perfumes, air fresheners, Christmas trees).
Feline asthma is unfortunately a life-long condition, which has periods of “flare ups” and sadly it can also get worse with time and therefore, it is important to get cats who have feline asthma checked over regularly by their vet.
The good news is that with regular checks and adequate management most cats can have a good quality of life.