What is cat (feline) asthma?
Feline asthma is an immunity-related disease and can be triggered by an allergy (environmental or food) or brought on by stress.
It is an allergic respiratory condition which causes chronic inflammation of the small passageways in the lungs (bronchioles) leading to the tightening of the bronchioles causing breathing difficulties.
Symptoms of cat asthma include wheezing, difficulty or laboured breathing and a persistent cough. A cough is a reflex action, triggering the forcing out of air from the chest. Inflammation of the lungs and larynx results in the cat coughing.
It is incurable but the condition is manageable with the right care and medication and cats with the condition normally lead happy and active lives.
What causes asthma in cats?
Asthma in cats is an immunity-related condition and attacks can often be brought on by an allergy or stress. Possible triggers include pollen, grass, dust mites, tobacco smoke, cat litter, candles, wax melts, cleaning products, mould spores, dyes, smoke from fireplaces, and reactions to some foods – very similar to humans.
This allergic respiratory response often develops between the ages of two and eight years old, with slightly more female cats diagnosed than males; it is less common in older cats. The average age of diagnosis of asthma in cats is between 4 and 5 years old. It is thought that between 1 – 5% of cats suffer from asthma and related respiratory diseases.
What are the symptoms of feline (cat) asthma?
- Wheezing or blue lips and gums
- Fast, shallow or difficulty breathing
- A persistent cough (sometimes with frothy mucus)
- Gagging (like with a hairball)
- Difficulty breathing (dyspnoea) after exertion
- Mouth breathing
- Neck held upwards and gasping for breath
- Overall weakness and lethargy (no energy)
- Gurgling in the cat’s throat
- Increased swallowing
What to do if your cats shows symptoms of asthma
If your cat shows any of the symptoms above, even if they come and go this could be an indication that your cat may have asthma or another respiratory condition; you should speak to your vet and get specialist advice.
Any cough or wheezing is a serious health issue, it happens because the lungs are inflamed and irritated and are therefore at risk of developing permanent scars on them, causing long-term damage to the small airways.
Asthma can be a life-threatening, causing constriction and obstruction of the airways just as in humans.
When resting or sleeping a cat will normally take in 24 to 30 breaths per minute – anything over 40 may need medical attention (cats may breathe quicker when excited, after exertion or purring). There are apps you can download onto your phone to monitor your cat’s breathing rate. This is also helpful if your cats suffers from heart disease. A cat’s normal breathing or respiratory rate can range from 10 – 30 breaths per minute depending upon, age, breed and state of health.
Diagnosing feline/ cat asthma
There is no definitive test to accurately diagnose asthma. Other conditions which have similar symptoms will initially need to be ruled out, including heart disease, respiratory infections such as Laryngitis, bronchitis and tracheitis and also heart and lungworm. (Lungworm is a common parasite that the cat can get from eating birds or rodents which are infested with this parasite; symptoms include a dry persistent cough.)
Your vet will listen to your cat’s chest with a stethoscope and may sometimes take a blood test to look for a high concentration of white blood cells, which can be linked to the condition as this a marker for an allergic reaction. Radiographs (X-rays) may also help with the diagnosis, a CT scan is another option your vet may explore in finding a diagnosis.
If the blood test suggests your cat could be suffering from asthma, a chest X-ray can then be used to look at the lungs – although it isn’t always possible to obtain an X-ray if your pet is having a bad attack. Trying to restrain your cat or give sedation could be very dangerous for them and therefore is not a viable option until the cat is breathing more normally. Your vet can advise you on the best course of action as to whether treatment should be given or if diagnostic tests should be attempted. In the early stages of the disease, an x-ray may show up as normal.
There is also a test called Bronchoalveolar Lavage (BAL), which involves taking a mucus sample under anaesthetic from the small airways and studying it under a microscope to look for a specific type of white blood cell.
Your cat may also be prescribed a course of corticosteroids and bronchodilators to see if the symptoms clear up, which if they do, also suggest the presence of feline asthma. Your vet will make a judgement after examining your cat and carrying out the tests most deemed to be appropriate. When a conclusion has been reached treatment can be prescribed to help keep your cat healthy and enjoy a good quality of life.
What are the signs of a feline/ cat asthma attack?
During a minor attack, your cat will normally start coughing and struggle to stop. They are likely to hold their neck out straight and keep their head close to the ground while coughing, and you may be able to hear wheezing.
Asthma causes spasms in the bronchi which in turn leads to swelling in the lining of the airways.
When your cat is having a full-blown asthma attack breathing becomes difficult and your cat’s sides will very visibly heave in and out. They will be unable to do anything else, and in extreme cases can start panting, look frightened and start coughing up mucus as well as drooling. If this happens it’s very important to call the vet right away.
What should I do if my cat has an asthma attack?
If your cat has an attack keep calm, give any medication prescribed by your vet and ensure your cat is kept in a nice cool area with good ventilation; try to reassure your cat.
If your cat is having a severe attack, then contact your vet straight away.
If you need to drive your cat to the surgery, make sure your car is well ventilated, leave the window open to let in plenty of fresh air.
Your cat will be very frightened so try not to add to the stress.
Treatment for feline/ cat asthma
There are two main types of treatment to manage asthma in cats – anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation which leads to the symptoms, and bronchodilator medication which helps to widen a feline’s air passage when needed. Antihistamine drugs may also be used when cats haven’t responded to other treatments.
Medication is often administered through an inhaler but can also be given in tablet or injection form. If an inhaler is recommended then make sure you are clear on how to use it. Inhalers for cats are different from human inhalers – you cannot tell a cat to inhale deeply!
Can asthma in cats be prevented?
With a little care and planning some of the triggers for an asthma attack can be avoided:
- Do not smoke around your pet
- Don’t spray cleaning products, perfumes, air fresheners or any aerosol products as they can worsen the condition
- Do not use dusty types or scented cat litters
- Stress can bring on attacks so try to keep your cat relaxed (if there are other pets in your home make sure your cat has a safe place to hide)
If your cat is overweight this can make the symptoms worse so keep your cat a healthy weight (ask your vet to advise you).
Take a video on your phone to show the vet (it may be upsetting for you, but it will help the vet prescribe the best medication).
Keep a diary of episodes/ attacks and how bad they were to try and build up a picture of what is causing the attacks (triggers).
Remember your cat can have a happy and normal life!
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