Though it hasn’t been as extensively studied as human asthma, cats can indeed get asthma. Called feline asthma, it can range from mild to life-threatening and signs vary from acute crisis to chronic respiratory problems. Feline asthma is just like human asthma in that it is an inflammatory disease of the airways within the lungs. It’s the most common chronic respiratory disease in cats, and it is estimated to affect 1% to 5% of house cats in the world.
Asthma is incurable, but with an understanding of the condition and its treatments, you can manage your cats’ illness to help them live a long and happy life.
What is Feline Asthma?
Asthma occurs when a cat’s immune system overreacts to the presence of an allergen. This causes inflammation and swelling of the tissue lining the airways and contraction of the muscles around them. This results in the narrowing of the airway and causes a cat to struggle to breathe properly, especially when the cat tries to breathe air out, resulting in wheezing and coughing.
The actual source and cause of feline asthma are debated, but it’s widely thought that it occurs when a cat’s airway is exposed to a stimulus that causes an allergic reaction, setting off an inflammatory response.
In addition to restricted breathing, asthma can cause excess mucus production. Mucus that cannot be cleared can cause an obstruction and increase the risk of respiratory infections. Such obstructions also risk trapping air in the lungs, which can cause lung damage long-term.
Severity of Feline Asthma
Feline asthma is not a linear condition. The severity of the illness will exist on a broad scale, with each cat’s unique experience. Vets will prescribe treatment depending on how serious your cat’s signs are.
- Mild: Only occasional signs that cause mild discomfort and do not impact the cat’s quality of life yet.
- Moderate: Signs are present quite often, but they disrupt their lifestyle or cause a significant impact.
- Severe: Signs occur daily and are very debilitating for the cat.
- Life-threatening: In the case of an acute crisis, a cat cannot get enough oxygen. Immediate care is required.
Causes of Feline Asthma
Asthma is considered to be an allergic disease. Asthma occurs as an inflammatory reaction to a particular substance, known as an allergen.
Suspected allergens for feline asthma include:
- Tobacco smoke
- Dust (including from kitty litter)
- Vapors from cleaning solutions
- Aerosol sprays
- Pollen from trees, weeds, and grass
- Smoke from fireplaces and candles
These substances have the potential to be recognized by a cat’s immune system as a threat. As such, the immune system will trigger an inflammatory response. This response is ironically to prevent harm from coming to the body. This immune overreaction creates more of an issue than was first present.
Asthma tends to get diagnosed in adult cats around 4–6 years old, but some cats may have very mild signs earlier on that don’t get noticed.
There is speculation that feline asthma has a genetic link. While there is no solid evidence to back up this claim, a few cat breeds, such as Siamese and related breeds, seem to have higher rates of asthma than others. There is no gender of cat that is more vulnerable to asthma than the other, so the link does not lie within gendered genetics.
Signs of Feline Asthma
General Feline Asthma Signs:
- Strange breathing e.g., open-mouth, rapid, shallow, rattling
- Struggling to breathe after activity
- Bringing up foaming mucus
- Decreased appetite
Signs of a Severe Asthma Attack:
- Hunching and extension of the neck (much like vomiting)
- Blush lips and gums
- Gurgling sounds
- Frothing at the mouth
There is no sure-fire way for your vet to confirm your cat has asthma without performing some tests. There is a process they will follow that eliminates other possibilities to confirm the presence of asthma with confidence.
- Physical exam: A vet can get a basic idea of what is going on from physical observations. They will be observing the pattern of breathing and where the cat uses the most energy (inhaling or exhaling.) With a stethoscope, they can listen to the lungs and identify abnormal breathing and suspected presence of mucus.
- X-Ray: An X-ray will be able to view the lungs and spot any cases of overinflation. This occurs when air gets trapped in the lungs due to mucus obstruction or the inability to exhale completely.
- Fecal Test: Asthma is not able to be detected in feces. But your vet will want to rule out the presence of a parasite called lungworm. This parasite can live in cats’ bronchi and cause similar symptoms to asthma.
- Allergy Testing: A comprehensive test for common allergens might be suggested. If it comes back positive for something, signs can be alleviated by trying to avoid the substance.
Based on these tests, a vet can rule out many other common diseases or parasites that cause the same symptoms as asthma and diagnose a cat with feline asthma.
Feline Asthma has no cure. Instead, treatment is a management plan specific to your own cat’s needs. Generally, a corticosteroid will be prescribed to help reduce inflammation. In conjunction, a bronchodilator is administered to open up the airways and increase oxygen flow.
These two treatments can be given in a few ways, including tablets, injections, and inhalers. An inhaler delivers the medication directly to the airways source of inflammation.
Your vet will guide you through the use of inhalers. Of course, a cat using an inhaler can be challenging, but there are specific cat chambers that can be used.
In severe cases of an asthma crisis, oxygen therapy will be used to increase your cat’s oxygen levels. This is in serious instances of life-threatening asthma attacks. In which event, you should see a vet ASAP.
You should follow your vet’s treatment plan thoroughly and not over or under treat your cat depending on how you think they are doing. Corticosteroid treatments come with some risks, unfortunately. Your vet will try to give your cat inhaled treatment over oral medication, and they will use the lowest effective dose to minimize the downsides associated with chronic corticosteroid use.
Caring for a Cat with Asthma
In addition to medical treatment, there are ways you can naturally alleviate and manage your cat’s asthma signs at home.
Improve the Air Quality
Since you cannot pinpoint what is causing the asthmatic response in your cat, you should avoid:
- Smoking in the home
- Using dusty or scented cat litters
- Using harsh household cleaners
- Wearing strong perfume
- Using aerosols near your cat
Keep Your Cat Indoors
There are endless allergens present in the outside world, grass, and pollen the most prominent. If your cat has free range outdoors, you can no longer control what they are exposed to and what they inhale.
You should speak to your vet about your options. Generally speaking, to prevent the inhalation of the unknown, you should keep your asthmatic cat exclusively as an indoor cat.
Emerging studies are trying to provide evidence for supplementation in an asthmatic cat’s diet in relieving signs. Most notably, long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) and an antioxidant (luteolin) might be beneficial, but further studies are needed.
Keep Your Cat Generally Healthy
If your cat is diagnosed with asthma, visiting the vet regularly is a must. Your vet will monitor your cat through their disease and help you adapt your management through your cat’s life stages.
You should aim to maintain excellent air quality at home and keep your cat within a healthy weight range to reduce the pressure on the airway during activity. It’s also helpful to keep stress to an absolute minimum as it can exacerbate an inflammatory response and lower the immune system.
- Related Read: If I Have Asthma, Can I Have a Cat?
Featured Image Credit: Kittima05, Shutterstock