If you think humans are the only ones struggling with asthma, that’s where you’re wrong. Even our beloved felines are known to suffer from the many symptoms associated with asthma. Sadly, most pet parents are not vigilant enough to recognize these symptoms. Most will brush them off as nothing more than another episode of hairball attack. Some may even think that their feline is choking on some food that the poor fellow ate. Recognizing the symptoms of feline asthma should help you find the best remedy for your pet’s wellbeing and for your own peace of mind.
Cat Asthma: More Than Just Hairball
Feline asthma shares many of the disease characteristics found in human asthmatic conditions. The term ‘asthma’ refers to the lower airways that are in a chronic state of inflammation. This chronic inflammation leads to the narrowing of the diameter of the airways, limiting the amount of air that is effectively inhaled by the cat. This can have serious implications in the oxygenation of the cat’s cells and tissues.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the narrowed airways that pose a problem. The inflammatory condition also begets increased production of secretion which can irritate the airways. As a defense mechanism, the cough reflex will be initiated to attempt to get rid of whatever is irritating the airways. This is what many pet parents who have no idea that their pets have asthma consider as just another hairball episode.
The combination of very narrow airways and increased pulmonary secretions, as well as spasms in the airways, makes breathing very difficult for cats. The resulting respiratory distress can turn dire in minutes. In severe cases of feline asthma, cats have been known to drop dead, literally, because of respiratory failure. While it is very rare for cats to suddenly drop dead without showing progressively worsening symptoms of asthma, this underscores the need for the early and prompt recognition of the telltale signs of asthma in cats.
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How Do I Know If My Cat Has Asthma?
Recognizing the symptoms of asthma in cats can be quite difficult especially if one isn’t really entertaining the possibility of such a feline respiratory disorder. At the very least, one may hear a very faint, almost inaudible wheeze that is similar to a high-pitched whistling sound which is heard mostly as the cat exhales or breathes out. Wheezing can also be heard upon breathing in. However, this is almost always an indication of an advanced state of asthma.
Wheezing is produced as air moves out from the lungs through narrowed airways. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why the airways can be narrowed. Injury to the surrounding tissues can cause the airways to constrict, producing a wheeze. If food gets lodged in the esophagus which is directly behind the trachea, the bulge can compress on the airway making it difficult for air to pass easily. Whatever the case, wheezing is one of the earliest indications that your cat may have asthma.
To distinguish wheezing caused by asthma from other causes, you have to consider other factors. For example, if the wheezing sound is more audible after your cat has had its vigorous playtime or exercise, then it is possible that you have feline asthma at hand. If your pet easily tires even after moderate physical activity, there’s a high chance that your cat has asthma. Easy fatigability or tiring easily occurs because of the insufficient levels of oxygen reaching the cells secondary to narrowed airways.
In many cases, difficult breathing almost always precedes an asthma attack. Your cat may look like it is trying to get rid of a hairball lodged down its esophagus or attempting to get rid of lodged food. The most distinguishing feature of a cat coughing because of asthma is that it will be squatting with its neck extended lower to the ground and its shoulders hunched. This position is intended to clear the airway passages of mucus, hopefully draining the secretions outside through the mouth. The way to clear the secretion is by coughing. This is mostly interpreted by pet parents as coughing out hairball, not knowing that their cat is already showing signs of asthma. In addition to coughing, your cat may also gasp for air or show very fast breathing.
If the cat is unable to clear the secretions and exhale, carbon dioxide will not be efficiently removed from the cat’s system. This will keep on circulating within the network of blood vessels in the cat leading to hypercarbia or hypercapnia which means an elevated carbon dioxide levels in the blood. This leftover carbon dioxide mixes with oxygenated blood, reducing the amount of oxygen delivered to the tissues and turning them into bluish discoloration, a condition known as cyanosis. You may notice your cat’s gums and lips to have a bluish hue.
What Causes Feline Asthma?
Since the main pathology in asthma is chronic inflammation, anything that can induce inflammatory changes in the airways can be considered as the most likely culprits of the development of feline asthma. More importantly, evidence shows a direct positive relationship between the presence of allergens and the inflammatory dynamics in asthma.
In many ways feline asthma can start as a simple allergic bronchitis whereby allergens – pollen, cat litter dust, molds, perfume, and even cigarette smoke – irritate the lower airway passages and stimulate the immune system to initiate an abnormally superfluous reaction to the presence of these irritants. As a matter of fact, it is now known that a cat’s sensitivity to pollen, allergens, and other environmental pollutants or contaminants is the single most important risk factor for the development of asthma. That said, if a cat is not hypersensitive to these risk factors, then asthma should be a very distant concern.
Cats with preexisting medical conditions such as pneumonia and heart failure can also present with asthma-like symptoms. When the heart fails as a pump, blood is not adequately moved forward. It floods the lungs resulting in pulmonary congestion and a reduction in the ability of the lungs to draw in air. The same is true with pneumonia. As the lung parenchyma is inflamed, the inflammatory changes also extend well into the smaller airways.
Lung parasites and heartworms as well as tumors are also possible risk factors for the development of asthma in cats.
How Do Vets Diagnose Asthma in Cats?
Feline asthma shares many of its symptoms with other disease processes. For instance, wheezing can also be seen in bronchitis, respiratory allergies, bronchiectasis, heart failure, pneumonia, heartworm disease, and many more. The same is true with lethargy, weakness, and coughing. As such your vet should be able to zero-in on a more definitive diagnosis of asthma in your cat by performing a variety of tests.
First, your vet will order blood tests to help provide a baseline for mast cells, macrophages, neutrophils, and eosinophils that are often elevated in cases of asthmatic bronchitis. If these are not elevated, at the very least, you’ll be able to rule out asthma from your cat’s suspected causes of its symptoms.
Second, an x-ray will help determine any abnormalities in the structure of the cat’s lungs. The vet will focus mostly on areas that show signs of chronic irritation. He will have to look for signs of unusual fluid accumulation (a telltale sign of pulmonary edema and possibly heart failure), flattened diaphragm, and signs of infection. The outline of the heart may also indicate possibility of cardiac enlargement which can contribute to pulmonary edema.
Third, a bronchoalveolar lavage or BAL may be performed to help examine the secretions present in the airways. A small fiberoptic tube is inserted through the cat’s trachea, typically under general anesthesia, to draw fluids and other debris present in the airways. The secretions and other particulates can then be examined closer for other causes of the clinical manifestations. Of course, the problem with BAL is that the cat has to be heavily sedated. If it has severe respiratory distress, receiving general anesthesia is never a good idea.
How Is Feline Asthma Managed?
Unfortunately, one cannot really cure asthma. Like in humans, once your cat has been diagnosed with asthma, its management is focused more on the alleviation and control of the symptoms.
Steroids like prednisone are usually administered to help eliminate the inflammation that is characteristic of the disease. Oral prednisone is usually given 3 times a day and evenly spaced in its timing of administration. Prednisone can also come as transdermal patches which slowly introduce the active ingredient through the cat’s skin. Injectable prednisone is also available. A newer presentation of steroids for feline asthma is a metered-dose inhaler, similar to the puff devices of asthmatic kids and adults. The best thing about aerosol delivery of prednisone is that it goes straight to the airways, bypassing the gastrointestinal tract and the blood. As such, its effects are immediate.
In addition to steroids for the control of inflammation, asthmatic cats may also be provided with bronchodilators such as albuterol. Bronchodilators work by relaxing the smooth muscles of the airways. Once fully relaxed, they can expand a lot better, facilitating the movement of air. Bronchodilators are usually given as needed or when your cat is about to have an asthmatic attack. These are mostly available in aerosol forms giving them the ability to work in an instant. Sadly, the problem is the risk of abuse. Excessive use of bronchodilators has been attributed to bronchial spasms.
What Can I Do as a Pet Parent?
The main issue with feline asthma, just like human asthma, is that one has to learn to live with it since there really are no definitive, permanent cures to the condition. What you can do, however, is to institute a host of measures to help minimize the triggering of an asthma attack in your pet.
Identifying asthma triggers is important in the management of the condition. If you notice your pet becoming asthmatic when exposed to certain allergens or environmental pollutants, then you know that eliminating these items can help prevent the triggering of an asthma attack.
If your pet is allergic to cigarette smoke, then it would be wise to quit smoking altogether or to smoke outdoors and far from your home. This is because the molecules of cigarette smoke can adhere to walls and other surfaces which your cat can inhale and trigger its asthma.
Smoke coming from the fireplace can also be a problem. Replacing your wood-burning fireplace, no matter how sentimental it is, with gas furnaces can help your asthmatic cat. Some cats are also susceptible to plug-in air fresheners, potpourris, and candles that are heavily scented. These can all initiate the sequence of events that lead to asthmatic attack.
Dust and dust mites are also excellent asthma triggers. Using vacuum cleaners with HEPA filter can greatly eliminate these airborne particles. While they may be expensive, just think about the health benefits such cleaning appliances can bring to your family and your asthmatic pet. Replacing your curtain with nonporous yet equally attractive window blinds can help. And if you have the budget for a major home remodeling, you may want to strip your surfaces of carpet and instead put tiles or hardwood floors.
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The type of cat litter you place in your pet’s box can also trigger asthma especially those that tend to form dust over time. Clay litter is one of the most common asthma triggers. So you may want to put silicone crystal litter or even pine litter instead. However, it is imperative that you use only unscented ones as the scent molecules of these litter can exacerbate asthmatic conditions.
Mold and mildew also need to be controlled. If you’re not up to the task, you can call in professional mold and mildew cleaners to provide a good deep cleaning of every nook and cranny of your house. These microscopic organisms can readily enter your cat’s respiratory tract and trigger an attack of asthma.
The key to managing asthma in cats is the prompt recognition of the symptoms so that the appropriate treatments can be given. More importantly, knowing your cat well enough can help you recognize if something is off or not.
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- Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, Asthma and Bronchitis in Cats, VCA Hospitals
- Jean Duddy, DVM, Approach to the Coughing Cat, The MSPCA–Angell
- David G.Marsh, PhD, Immunotherapy For Cat Asthma, ScienceDirect
- Feline Asthma: What You Need to Know, Cornell Feline Health Center
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.