You may not think about pets having asthma—especially about them using an inhaler—but feline asthma occurs in 1% to 5% of cats. Asthma is defined as a constriction of the airways, or bronchi, the two narrow tubes that lead directly from the trachea to the lungs. This airway disease is commonly confused with hairball production in cats, but neither issue is exactly common, and excessive coughing or hacking should be a reason to visit your Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital veterinarian.  

What causes feline asthma?

Although there is some debate, most researchers agree that feline asthma is caused by an allergic reaction to inhaled allergens. The airways narrow when a cat’s immune system overreacts to an allergen, releasing stimulants that cause inflammation of the sensitive bronchial tissues, and contraction of the surrounding muscle. This cascade of events causes difficulty breathing, especially when exhaling.

Triggers for feline asthma include the following allergens:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dusty kitty litter
  • Vapors from cleaning solutions and aerosol sprays
  • Pollen from trees, weeds, and grasses
  • Mold and mildew
  • Dust mites
  • Smoke from fireplaces and candles

Any predisposition for gender or age regarding asthma development is not apparent. However, a genetic link is possible, because Siamese cats seem to suffer from asthma more commonly than other breeds. 

What are feline asthma signs?

Cats suffering from asthma may show the following signs:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Coughing
  • Hacking
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Frothy mucus while coughing
  • Vomiting 

These signs can vary in intensity, and can cause an acute respiratory crisis. Chronic, low-grade coughing, an elevated respiratory rate, and increased respiratory effort are also commonly seen in asthmatic cats. During an asthma attack, many cats hunch their body close to the ground and extend their necks forward, the same position they often take when expelling a hairball.

How is feline asthma diagnosed?

No single, specific test can definitively diagnose feline asthma. Instead, our team will collect information from various diagnostic tests and your cat’s health history. Diagnostic imaging is typically the most helpful when diagnosing asthma. X-rays often reveal an accumulation of inflammatory cells in the airways. Air may also be trapped in the constricted airways, causing the lungs to become overinflated and appear larger than normal. 

Bronchoscopy is also used to help diagnose feline asthma. This technique uses a flexible camera to visualize the inside of the airways, and to collect cellular samples. Cats with asthma often have distinctive changes in their airway lining, and high numbers of inflamed cells. 

Based on the results of these two imaging tests, baseline blood work to check for inflammation, allergy testing, and your cat’s health history, we can reach a definitive diagnosis. However, we will also rule out other conditions that cause similar signs. Chronic bronchitis, lungworms, heartworms, and infectious diseases that result in pneumonia can all appear similar to asthma. 

How is feline asthma treated?

Like asthma in people, feline asthma is incurable, but can be successfully managed. The main focus is reducing inflammation in the lungs and airways. Typically, we’ll prescribe corticosteroids to reduce airway inflammation, and may also recommend bronchodilators to help open up the airways. Bronchodilators alone are generally not used, as they do not battle the inflammation associated with asthma. Both of these drug types come in oral, inhaled, and injectable forms, allowing you many avenues for treating your pet. 

You can also help manage your cat’s asthma at home. Maintaining your cat at a healthy weight will stave off obesity, which can make asthma attacks worse. Minimize the use of aerosol sprays, perfumes, candles, and other airborne allergens to limit the potential for an asthma flare. Air purifiers may also help remove environmental allergens, leaving fewer triggers for your cat, and keeping your windows closed during the height of pollen season will reduce that particular threat. By administering medication as needed, and reducing exposure to potential allergens, your pet can breathe easy and live a comfortable life.

Are you concerned whether your feline friend is hacking up a hairball or developing asthma? Prevent your cat from suffering respiratory distress by scheduling an appointment with our Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital team. Give us a call to set up a physical exam and diagnostic testing.