Cat asthma affects about one percent of all cats. It should be suspected if your cat has a cough or a wheeze or increased respiration rate or effort. If you see any of these signs, take your cat to your veterinarian – sooner rather than later.
Asthma in cats is a hypersensitivity to environmental allergens. It resembles bronchial asthma in humans. There may be a seasonal trigger.
The asthma causes bronchoconstriction, so the cough is really more of a wheeze. Some cats may have this chronic wheezing, while others might have severe respiratory distress, which is an emergency. A cat having trouble breathing may hunch his shoulders or lie with his chest to the floor and his mouth open. This requires immediate veterinary care.
Asthma is diagnosed with an examination that includes listening to the chest with a stethoscope, a complete examination, along with a history of signs and symptoms that you will provide. Chest X-rays are always indicated, but may need to be postponed depending on the severity of the condition when your cat first sees the veterinarian.
It’s important to differentiate asthma from bronchitis, pneumonia, heartworm, and lung cancer. Heartworms are endemic in almost all areas; they are spread by mosquitoes and in cats cause lung disease rather than heart disease. A cough caused by lung disease sounds exactly like a cough due to asthma or bronchitis. Every coughing cat should be tested for heartworm.
A bronchodilator is used to control asthma attacks in cats. That, combined with anti-inflammatory drugs (steroids), is generally used for long-term management. Anti-leukotrienes, which help people with asthma, have not been found to be effective in cats. However, research into the cat immune system is ongoing, and newer treatments may be on the horizon. These medications are most effectively administered using an inhaler. There are now specially designed inhalers made just for cats.
It’s not difficult to teach a cat to calmly accept the inhaler mask. Asthma is a chronic, recurring condition. It can be managed, not cured. If the cat is diagnosed early and treated aggressively, she can live a full life. Some cats are able to be on medication only when the seasonal allergen triggers their asthma or when attacks flare up.
Others must be medicated throughout their lives. Secondhand smoke and cat obesity are two of the biggest complicators of cat asthma. Allergy testing by your veterinarian and minimizing exposure to allergens can be helpful.