A bout of wheezing or coughing in a cat is sure to raise an eyebrow for any pet parent, and for good reason. This change of breathing could signal a health concern, such as cat asthma. Cat asthma is when your cat’s lungs are inflamed, typically due to an allergy in the environment. Like in people, inflamed lungs cause constricted airways and excess mucus production.
While only 1% to 5% of cats receive a formal diagnosis for feline asthma, the condition may account for 60% of all lower respiratory diseases in cats. For this reason, you may want to check with your vet if you suspect your cat has asthma. There is good news: cat asthma is manageable, and there are plenty of DIY methods to prevent an attack. For severe cases, a vet can provide prescription medicine to help your cat’s symptoms so they can live long, happy lives.
Cat Asthma Symptoms
Cats with mild to moderate asthma may experience periods of coughing with otherwise normal behaviour. However, severe cat asthma attacks are an emergency. If your cat can’t catch their breath, is open-mouth breathing, or has blue lips and gums, take your cat to an emergency vet immediately.
- A hunched-over cough. This could look like your cat is trying to cough up a hairball, but one won’t come up.
- Difficulty breathing, especially when exhaling. “While shortness of breath is a hallmark of asthma, the big difference is asthmatic patients have difficulty fully exhaling,” Gary Richter, Rover’s resident veterinarian on The Dog People Panel says.
- Chronic coughing. Between the bouts of coughing during a cat asthma attack, your cat might pant to catch their breath.
- Wheezing or crackling. Asthma in cats can cause abnormal sounds in the lungs, including wheezing and crackling.
- Vomiting. Your cat may vomit with intense spells of coughing and wheezing.
- Rapid breathing. Asthmatic cats may have a faster respiratory rate than others, especially when sleeping. A typical respiratory rate is 24 to 30 breaths per minute. If your cat’s respiratory rate is 40 breaths per minute or above, take them to the vet.
- Open-mouth breathing. Cats with asthma may experience dyspnea or shortness of breath. If your cat is open-mouth breathing, they should see a vet immediately.
- Blue(ish) lips and gums. Like open mouth breathing, blue lips, and gums indicate your cat is not getting enough oxygen. If your cat has blue lips and gums, they need urgent medical care.
Several conditions—like bronchitis or a heartworm infection—can cause breathing conditions like asthma.
Cat Asthma Causes and Triggers
Asthma is triggered by inhaling particles that irritate the lungs, or an allergic reaction. The reaction then triggers inflammation, narrowing the airways and recruiting more inflammatory cells to the lungs. The more and more this reaction occurs, the more likely permanent structural changes will occur.
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Cat Asthma Risk Factors
Because asthma can look like other respiratory conditions, diagnosis can be tricky. As a result, risk factors can help your vet determine the likelihood of a cat asthma diagnosis. For example, cats of all breeds, ages, and gender can develop asthma, but it’s most often reported in Siamese and Himalayan cat breeds. Studies show the median age for the onset of symptoms is four to five years old. But cats have chronic signs (like coughs that resemble hairball hacking) that are easily missed by pet parents, indicating that asthma can affect cats at a younger age.
Cat Asthma Diagnosis
To diagnose asthma, your vet will take a clinical approach. In addition to a physical examination and review of history, your vet might perform one or more of these diagnostic evaluations:
- Chest (thoracic) X-rays. These tests give a 2D view of the lungs and show mild to severe inflammation in the lung lobes and airways that can indicate feline asthma.
- Chest ultrasound or CT scan. Unlike chest X-rays, CT scans provide a more comprehensive 3D view of the entire lung and can show airway wall thickening and airway collapse present in asthma. CT scans can also distinguish between asthma and other conditions such as bronchitis.
- Blood test. Thorough blood testing, blood count, and urinalysis are usually the first avenue of testing by vets to rule out any diseases of major organs. These tests are unremarkable for asthmatic cats with no other health conditions.
- Allergy test. Allergy tests are an essential tool for vets so they can rule out if a cat’s respiratory symptoms are caused by allergens, especially inhalant allergens (the most common trigger for cat asthma).
- Faecal parasite test. Faecal parasite and heartworm tests help rule out parasites that can mimic symptoms of asthma.
- Bronchoscopy, or the use of a small camera inside the airway. After vets put a cat under general anaesthesia, a vet inserts a camera on a thin flexible rod into their mouth, down their windpipe, and into the lower airways. If your cat has asthma, evidence of redness, irritation, airway collapse, airway narrowing, and mucus accumulation is common.
- Bronchoalveolar lavage and bacterial culture. This is often performed in conjunction with a bronchoscopy; vets flush a small volume of sterile salt water into the airway and suck the fluid back out through the bronchoscope or through a catheter. In asthmatic cats, vets can see a high percentage of allergic immune cells (eosinophils) under a microscope in samples of fluid from the airway. To determine if a bacterial infection is to blame, the sample will be cultured.
Cat Asthma vs. Bronchitis
Cat asthma and bronchitis have very similar symptoms and treatments but they are very different conditions. “Bronchitis and asthma are very closely related,” Dr. Richter explains. “Both are inflammatory conditions of the lungs.” The two conditions share similar symptoms, including coughing and shortness of breath. The difference between the two (although not able to be seen by pet parents) is that bronchitis affects the small airways of the lungs while asthma is inflammation of the lung tissue.
In later or more severe stages of chronic bronchitis, cats can experience permanent shortness of breath. This is due to the restructuring of the airway (similar to untreated cases of cat asthma). Ultimately, management of feline chronic bronchitis focuses on suppressing inflammation with anti-inflammatory medication or a steroid, increasing the likelihood of preventing permanent restructuring. Like cats with asthma, airway dilating medication (bronchodilators) may provide relief for mild to severe cases.
Medical Treatment for Cat Asthma
If you’ve taken your cat to the hospital for emergency care due to asthma, the immediate treatment is oxygen from a vet. Once your cat is breathing easier, your vet will discuss long-term care and management tailored to your cat’s symptoms and clinical findings. Stress can be a cat asthma attack trigger. So, consider your cat’s comfort when discussing treatment options.
Common cat asthma treatments include an inhaler with one of the following medications:
- Inhaled steroids. A cat asthma inhaler is the most effective method for the management of asthma in cats. Equipped with a pediatric-inspired face mask, your cat will typically take seven to ten breaths from their inhaler twice daily, or as directed by your vet.
- Oral steroids. These are used in conjunction with or in place of, inhaled steroids. If an inhaler is a no-go for your cat, oral steroids hidden in their favourite snack might be for them.
- Bronchodilators. These are typically prescribed as another cat inhaler for asthma, used for emergencies or a sudden flare-up. Bronchodilators may also be given by injection or orally. However, bronchodilators only expand the airway and don’t treat and prevent inflammation, they aren’t used as a stand-alone treatment.
Natural Remedies for Cat Asthma
No matter the severity of your cat’s asthma, reducing the triggers of an attack will provide relief. Some lifestyle and environmental things you can do include:
- Minimise your cat’s exposure to allergens and irritating chemicals by keeping items, such as cleaning products, out of your cat’s common areas. If you can, change your home air filters based on the manufacturer’s schedule.
- Switching cat litter brands to low-dust litters.
- Wipe your cat off after every outdoor adventure to reduce pollen.
- Work with a vet to adjust your cat’s diet if they need to lose weight.
If your vet performed an allergy test on your cat, they might provide more specific triggers to avoid.
Additionally, another natural method of treating cat asthma is cat acupuncture. According to Indian Trail Animal Hospital, “feline acupuncture decreases inflammation by stimulating nerve centres”—a practice that could decrease inflammation of the lungs. This treatment should be done alongside vet-recommended medication and not as a replacement.
Lastly, a diet change could help your asthmatic kitty. Choosing a diet rich in omega-3 boosts the health of your cat’s skin and coat and is proven to reduce inflammation caused by allergies. If your cat is overweight, talk with your vet about the best foods for weight loss.
Cat Asthma vs. Human Asthma
“Any asthmatic person will tell you it is hard to fully exhale [when they have an asthma attack],” Dr. Richter says. This experience is similar for cats but is not the only similarity.
In fact, the same irritants cause asthma in cats and people, and can be exacerbated by the same underlying conditions, and even diagnosed with the same techniques. The pediatric inhaler even served as a model for the cat asthma inhaler.
If you think your cat has asthma, talk to your vet. Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma, but getting ahead of flare-ups and reducing triggers can make your cat more comfortable and prevent permanent damage to their lungs. That’s why working with a trusted veterinary respiratory specialist is key to keeping your cat’s asthma under control. Management of feline asthma, especially reducing triggers, identifying allergens that could cause asthma, and having a treatment plan in place, is a life-long commitment, but luckily cats with asthma can live a full and happy life thanks to medicine, such as bronchodilators and cat inhalers, and the right care.