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Feline asthma, the most commonly diagnosed respiratory disorder in cats, is very similar to asthma in humans. In both cats and people, an asthma attack happens when an allergic reaction causes spasms in the airway, leading to inflammation and swelling that restricts air flow and makes it extremely hard to breathe.
Cats of all ages and breeds can experience feline asthma, although it seems to be more common in cats between 2 and 8 years old. Males and females are equally at risk, but outdoor cats may be more likely to develop asthma than indoor cats due to a greater potential for exposure to allergy triggers.
It’s estimated that between 1 and 5 percent of all cats are afflicted with asthma. In some cats, these attacks can be a chronic problem, while in others they can come and go with no apparent reason. What makes feline asthma tricky is that cats who are actively experiencing an attack can show few signs that they are in distress, and sometimes the signs they do show are very easy to miss.
What Happens During A Feline Asthma Attack?
An asthma attack occurs in the cat’s lower respiratory tract. When a cat breathes in, air enters through the mouth and moves down the trachea, or windpipe. From there, the trachea splits into two thick branches called bronchi. Once through the bronchi, the air travels into smaller branches called bronchioles, then on to tiny little sacs in the lungs called alveoli. It’s here in the alveoli where oxygen is absorbed from the inhaled air and transported to the rest of the body. If at any point something goes wrong along this pathway, the cat may be unable get enough oxygen to sufficiently supply the brain and organs with what they need to function.
An asthma attack begins with the cat being exposed to an allergen, which is any substance that can cause an allergic reaction in the body. The cat’s immune system overreacts to the allergen, and sends a cavalry of immune cells to the airways. These cells then begin to release substances called histamines that trigger spasms in the bronchi, which causes the bronchi to become inflamed and swell. This in turn restricts the flow of air to the alveoli.
Then to make matters worse, glands in the lungs also begin to expand, kicking out large amounts of mucus into the airways, which clogs up what little breathing space that remains. If the asthma attack is severe enough, it can lead to respiratory distress that can become life-threatening in minutes.
This overaccumulation of mucus and fluid creates further damage by trapping air in the alveoli, causing the lungs to over-inflate. In time, this can lead to permanent damage to the cat’s lungs.
What Does A Feline Asthma Attack Look Like?
Most cats who are experiencing an asthma attack will suddenly stop what they’re doing, squat low to the ground, hunch their shoulders, and extend their neck almost straight out in front of them. They begin to hack and cough, gagging up foamy mucus, then swallowing hard.
The video below captures a cat experiencing an asthma attack:
Notice how the cat extends his neck out in front of him, attempting to open up his airway. After the coughing, he swallows hard to get rid of the excess mucus. You can probably see why many cat parents may easily mistake this behavior for trying to vomit up a hairball.
Other symptoms of feline asthma may include:
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Breathing with the mouth open
- Vomiting after a hard coughing spell
- Poor appetite
- Runny eyes
- Fast heart rate
- Lethargy/no energy
- A blue tinge to the tongue and gums
If the cat progresses to the point where his tongue and gums are turning blue, he is not getting enough oxygen to survive. This is a life-threatening emergency that needs immediate veterinary attention!
Feline Asthma Triggers
There are many things that can trigger a feline asthma attack, including:
- Grass, tree, and ragweed pollen
- Dust from clay cat litter
- Mold and mildew
- Feline heartworm disease
- Household cleaners
- Air fresheners (both sprays and plug-ins)
- Dust and dust mites
- Perfume and cosmetics
- Cigarette smoke
- Smoke from fireplaces and candles
- Carpet cleaners and fresheners
- Scented laundry detergent and/or fabric softeners
- Feather pillows
- Live Christmas trees
- Cold, dry air
- Strenuous exercise
- Certain foods (particularly fish-based foods)
- Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections
Cat litter is one of the most common culprits in triggering feline asthma, particularly dusty clay litters. There are many low-dust or zero-dust alternatives for cats with asthma, including litters made of recycled newspaper, wood pellets, silica, wheat, and corn. However, just because a litter is labeled “natural” does not mean it’s safe. Litters made with pine and cedar wood contain substances called plicatic and abietic acids that can actually cause asthma and do permanent damage to the respiratory tract, even in healthy cats.
Diagnosing Feline Asthma
If you suspect your cat has asthma, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. Diagnosing asthma is considered a “diagnosis of exclusion”, which means that all other causes of respiratory issues must be ruled out first in order to make sure that asthma is the real culprit.
Your veterinarian may recommend some of these tests to help confirm a diagnosis of asthma:
- Blood work to check for normal organ function, blood sugar levels, infection, or an increase in the number of specialized blood cells called eosinophils that can indicate an allergic reaction.
- Heartworm testing to rule out the presence of heartworms.
- X-rays of the heart and lungs. Cats with asthma sometimes show a bright, branching pattern in their airways on x-rays.
- Fecal testing to rule out the presence of lungworm, a parasite that lives in the lungs and sheds eggs through the feces.
- Bronchoscopy, a procedure where a flexible tube with a camera on the end is passed down into the lungs so the veterinarian can see directly into the airways.
- Tracheal Lavage, also called a “tracheal wash.” This is a technique where the trachea is “washed” with sterile saline that collects cells and mucus from the trachea so the vet can examine them under the microscope.
- CT Scan, which provides a 3-D picture of the respiratory system.
Treating Feline Asthma
There are 3 main goals when it comes to treating feline asthma: reducing the amount of fluid and mucus in the airways, improving the flow of air, and reducing symptoms. Although asthma is considered incurable, it can be managed, and cats with asthma can do very well and live long, healthy lives with appropriate treatment.
Treatment for feline asthma usually consists of:
- Avoiding triggers. Since asthma begins with an allergic reaction, it’s important to try to identify and remove the allergens that are causing the problem (this may also involve making a dietary change to a hypoallergenic diet).
- Making sure the cat is at a healthy weight. Overweight and obese cats suffer more from overall inflammation in their bodies, which makes asthma worse. Extra weight also places more stress on the heart and lungs.
- Reducing stress, which can contribute to asthma attacks.
- Using corticosteroids, which have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. Although these can be injected or given in pill form, they are more effective and have fewer side effects when given through an inhaler. Many veterinarians favor using the steroid fluticasone through an inhaler.
- Using bronchodilators, medications that are inhaled directly into the lungs to help open up the airways to allow the cat to breathe more freely. These are usually used in combination with corticosteroids, since bronchodilators on their own do not actually treat the inflammation that causes asthma. Albuterol, also given through an inhaler, is one of the most commonly used bronchodilators.
Since it would be next to impossible to ask a cat who is having an asthma attack to suck in on an inhaler like the ones humans use, there are special inhalers made just for cats. These have a mask portion that can be placed over the cat’s mouth and nose to allow him to breathe in the medications on his own.
The Good News About Feline Asthma
Although severe feline asthma attacks can be life-threatening, the good news is that the majority of cats with asthma do not seem to experience severe attacks. Many asthmatic cats are completely free of symptoms between episodes, and with close monitoring, an environment as free as possible from triggers, and appropriate treatment, they can live a relatively normal life.
However, asthma can progress if not treated appropriately, so be sure to address any coughing your cat has with your veterinarian. If your cat is diagnosed with feline asthma, the Feline Asthma Website offers extremely helpful information and tips for caring for a cat with asthma.
Has your cat ever been diagnosed with feline asthma? Please share your story with us in the comments below!
When your cat gets older they will cough quietly like they are trying to cough up some mucus. They won’t cough violently like they did when they were younger and you thought it was just a fur ball.
The quiet coughing usually starts at the beginning of spring when there is a lot of pollen in the air. When this happens you should try and find a Vet that will let you try an asthma inhaler because they might be having an asthma attack and they could suddenly die. Also, your cat probably has had asthma all of their life and you thought it was just a fur balls all of this time.
My vet said my 10 year old cat might have asthma after a chest and hair ball X ray proved nothing and asked if I wanted to try an inhaler, pills or a shot. I thought the inhaler would be a lot of trouble because I would be spraying medicine directly into my cat’s mouth with a mask. So I tried the shot.
The cat was fine for a 6 months and then the quiet mucus coughing started again. I should have also chosen the inhaler because you can spray the medicine into a large tube of air and then the cat will breathe normally from the tube without any problems. – Go to YouTube – Cat asthma inhalers. Plus look at the You Tube – Cat Asthma attacks.
Plus, if the coughing stops after using the inhaler you now know that your cat has asthma and you can prevent it from dying suddenly from an asthma attack when they are older.
Leanne Cloud says
My cat would have an asthma attack, on average, 3 times a day. I changed her litter to the recycled newspaper litter and she hasn’t had an episode yet. Cats aren’t born with asthma (much like children.). There’s always a trigger. Find that trigger rather than resort to medication for your cat.
Camille Schake says
Hi Leanne, I completely agree that a trigger is always present with asthma, whether it’s cats or humans! One of my kitties has mild asthma, so I switched litter, stopped burning any type of candles in my house, and am very careful to not use any aerosol sprays. His asthma attacks are extremely rare now, and very mild, so he has not had to go on medication. Thank you for the reminder that sometimes just eliminating triggers in the environment can totally eliminate the need for medications.
Which litter did u use, do you mind sharing the name and if its available on amazon. My kitty is detected with feline asthma and want to do whats best for him . Thanks
Camille Schake says
Hi Roma! I actually switched to a “low dust litter”, Dr. Elsey’s Ultra Clumping Multi-Cat Litter (you can get it on Amazon or Chewy.com), which seemed to help quite a bit. That being said, there is still some dust associated with that litter, although it is MUCH less than the dust produced by the litter I was first using! I know Dr. Elsey’s also now has a “Respiratory Relief Formula”, which I have not tried, that is supposed to be extremely good for cats with respiratory issues. Keep in mind that any clay litter (even the low-dust varieties) will have some dust associated with it, so in addition to the Dr. Elsey’s Respiratory Relief, you may also want to try a litter made from paper, like Okocat’s Dust-free Natural Paper Litter, and see what works best for your kitty and what he enjoys using. It’s been my experience that cats can be quite particular about the texture of their litter (which is why I don’t use silica litter – although it doesn’t produce any dust, my kitties don’t like the feel of it), so you will want to take that into consideration too. I tested a few before I found the Dr. Elsey’s brands, which I like quite a bit.
I hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your sweet kitty! 🙂
Sally Jones says
I have a cat with asthma, I am also asthmatic so our house is already free of asthma triggers. We do not use perfumes, scents, candles, dusty kitty litter, aresols sprays, harsh cleaning chemicals etc… Without these things both my cat and I still have points in time where our asthma is bothersome and we use medication. There is no shame in using medication yourself or in your pets when you need to! In fact it is the responsible thing to do, and as an asthmatic myself who at times has been unable to take a breath of air (as I stopped taking my asthma medication on a regular basis) it is a very dangerous thing to even suggest not treating an asthmatic.
My kitty has asthma. Pills work for a minute. Tried herbal remedies. I feel scared for her
I hate taking her to doctor.
Camille Schake says
Hi Carol, has your vet tried giving you an inhaler to use at home to administer the medication during her attacks? Asthma in cats is one of those conditions that gets worse when the cat gets stressed, so treating them at home is often the safest option for them. And the inhalers seem to work really well!
Hi. Do you have any tips on how to treat a cat at home. I think he may have asthma, so I removed all the possible triggers but he is still having what looks to be asthma attacks. I’m very worried, but have no money to take him to the vet and pay for everything he may need. I can’t take him to a vet at all, but he does this multiple times a day and it seems to be getting worse.
Camille Schake says
Hi Achlys, thank you for writing! If your kitty is having multiple episodes of breathing difficulty on a daily basis, he really needs to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Whatever is causing these episodes may be asthma, or it may be something else entirely – you won’t know for sure until he gets a thorough examination. If you can take video on your phone and let a veterinarian see it, that’s even better.
I know you mentioned your financial situation, but in this case, if there is any possible way you can find a way to at least have him examined, I would strongly recommend it. Some veterinarians provide discounted services for people in their community, especially now during the Covid crisis when many people are struggling. I would recommend reaching out to your local humane society, animal control shelter, even local rescue groups to see if someone can recommend a vet who is willing and able to offer discounted services or a payment plan. That way the cost of just an exam by a regular vet may not be as much as you anticipated.
I wish I had a better answer and an easier solution, but when it comes to cats and ongoing or worsening breathing issues, prompt veterinary care is very important. Unfortunately, you really won’t be able to treat something at home if you’re not sure what’s causing it. I hope you are able to get connected with a good vet who is able to work with you to find out what’s causing your kitty’s breathing issue!
So my cat was diagnosed with cat asthma in September and has been on Prednisone since, the doctor said she is improving, but I am still worried about her breathing as it is very fast (sometimes 60+ breaths per minute). we have told the vet and she doesn’t seem to worried, but everywhere i read that breathing rate is worthy of a emergency vet visit. She constantly breaths fast and honestly looking back at old videos, she seems to have always breathed like this, and they vet just noticed that she had asthma (shes 4 now and we are at a new vet who spotted it) Also my cat is very tiny 6.3 lbs, shes 4 years old btw, and was rescued off the street at a month old. Am i over reacting? Cause she seems fine, she eats like she normally eats (shes VERY picky has always been) she sleeps, she plays when she wants to play, comes for loving and cuddles and typically acts like a normal cat, except her breathing is so fast. My mom says im over reacting cause she acts normal but I can’t loose that cat as she is my entire world.
I think you should try a different vet. Your cats hearth rate is a concern. My cat has asthma, and it’s a struggle. Many blessings on your cat care journey.
Julie A Burfield says
My car has asthma and was put on Flovent. He is out of it now and I’m not able to get the Flovent refilled right now. I have another inhaler that someone gave me but it’s not same brand as my cat takes. It’s symbicort brand. Am I able to give him that even though he takes Flovent? Any info is greatly appreciated
Deb Fredrickson says
I send a RX to canada for his inhalers. Get 2 at a time for under $50us. pharmstore.com
K kyllonen says
My orange guy was diagnosed with asthma a year ago, and we started puffers ,one puff in the morning one puff at night. His asthma attacks lessened and we were able to go to one path towards summer time. I didn’t hear any asthma attacks all summer except he did cough a couple of times when he caught a bird and had feathers in his mouth. All of a sudden in November he has started coughing again. It seems to be normal to have flareups in the winter. The poor guy is also a diabetic so the asthma puffer I believe has thrown his blood sugars off. I do have a rescue inhaler , tried it a couple times .I hate that this innocent boy has these conditions 😔not sure what his trigger is .my old house has a dust problem. I try keeping his areas clean with vacuuming and air purifiers, better litter . I try to be there for his litter box visits to scoop for him so he’ll get less dust .I hope spring will bring him relief again . Anyone having the same thing with seasonal flare ups?
We adopted our cat Bailey four months ago and fell in love with him. We live in a house with no scents, no candles, etc., so we thought we would be a good fit for this beautiful, kind boy who no one was adopting for over a year. Two days ago, he started having repeated “hairball” behavior, though we did not know that signified an attack. We were using a Flovent inhaler twice a day and had just weaned him off prednisone two weeks ago. He had been doing well, we thought. Yesterday, he had labored breathing and we used Albuterol emergency inhaler twice. By bed time, he was relaxed, but we made an appointment with our vet for today, just in case. This morning, he did not come when we called him. We found him having passed away lying on the floor. We are beyond devastated. I keep blaming myself that we should have done something yesterday, given him prednisone…can anyone offer any solace or even condemnation–I just can not believe we did not have a chance between last night and this morning to get him more help.
Camille Schake says
Amie, I am so, so sorry to hear about your loss of Bailey. 🙁 (And my apologies for the delay in response, as I just now saw your message). I will definitely offer you solace, never condemnation… you gave him the Albuterol twice and it sounds like he responded well, and if he had a vet appointment the next day and he wasn’t in respiratory distress when you went to bed, it was reasonable to believe that he would be okay until you had the vet check him. Cats are notoriously tricky when it comes to the fine line between being stable and crashing. Sometimes they seem fine, only to go downhill very quickly. You clearly loved him and were doing all the right things to try to accommodate his condition. The other wildcard is that he could have had some other issue going on (such as a cardiac condition) that had nothing to do with asthma. Please just know that you did a wonderful thing in opening your heart and your home to Bailey and loving him for the 4 months you had him. Whatever ended his life may have happened anyway, so at least when it did happen he was in a loving home and not in a shelter, and he absolutely knew that you loved him. Please be kind to yourself and don’t blame yourself for something that you may not have been able to prevent, no matter how much you wanted to. Sometimes these horrible things just happen. It’s not fair and it hurts beyond belief, but I hope as time goes on you can learn to focus on the good time you had with him, and that the happy memories will help dull the pain of your loss. My sincerest and heartfelt condolences. <3 <3
I’m so glad to find this article and thread. My vet thinks my cat may be asthmatic and seems eager to put him on a lifetime of inhalers. However, he only seems to have issues right after eating, and it came on suddenly right after he was put on fluoxetine and switched to prescription urinary food. Has anyone ever had a cat be diagnosed with asthma that was actually something digestive?
Camille Schake says
Hi Laura! I hadn’t heard of any cases like this, so I did some research and found that yours is not the only case where food has been found to trigger an asthma attack in cats. Apparently, asthma is an immune response that can be triggered by any allergy, not just an inhalant allergy…and this can include certain types of foods for some cats. It would be interesting to see what your kitty’s response would be if you switched foods, either back to his original food temporarily, or to a different type of urinary prescription food. It would be worth asking your vet… and if you don’t feel your question is being seriously considered, you can always get a second opinion from a Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist. These Specialists are trained to look at the entire body and how all organ systems interact, and how to treat the underlying causes of health issues and disease. I’ve utilized Internal Medicine vets for my own cats over the years when I needed a second opinion for more complex health issues, and highly recommend them.
Good luck, and please let me know what you find out!
My cat Felix is on a first name basis with the vet. I adopted him from our local humane society when he was approximately 6 months old. Shortly after bringing him home he developed multiple upper respiratory infections, eye infections, and digestive issues. He was placed on pro and pre-biotics, meds for his breathing and also prescribed a limited/novel protein diet. Two years of dealing with these issues, and after a 6 month vet-free period of time, he started coughing and hacking. I Immediately call the vet and after bloodwork, a fecal exam and a radiograph, Felix was diagnosed with asthma.
Due to his previous history, I was flummoxed. He was already eating a prescribed diet, on low/no dust cat litter, we had already trashed any and all candles, essential oils, and harsh cleaners over the two years he lived with us and nothing new had been introduced to our environment. We started him on prednisone and for a month that worked well. However, his attacks started up again and the doctor recommended flovent using the aerokat. We administer the inhaler every 12 hours, so twice a day, and it has worked wonders for his health.
I completely understand the need to identify triggers and we are still working on that on our end, but even our vet was caught of guard and there simply are people and cats who need medication to aid in maintaining a high quality of life. I am grateful for both products and wish the best for everyone currently battling feline asthma.
Camille Schake says
Hi Myles, thank you so much for sharing this! First, you have my deepest admiration for your commitment to getting Felix the very best of care with his multiple health issues. I know how challenging it can be to care for a cat with multiple challenges, and it sounds like he is getting everything he needs to thrive. <3 Second, I agree 100% that using a Flovent with an inhaler can be a godsend for cats with serious asthma! Veterinary medicine has come a long way when it comes to offering asthmatic cats the same quality of treatments that are available to humans.
Thank you for all you're doing to give Felix everything he needs to be happy and healthy, and wishing you both the very best! 🙂
This is the only article I have seen saying that pine litter can cause astma. “Litters made with pine and cedar wood contain substances called plicatic and abietic acids that can actually cause asthma and do permanent damage to the respiratory tract, even in healthy cats.” Also the previous sentence is contradictory because it recommends wood pellet litter to keep down dust. “There are many low-dust or zero-dust alternatives for cats with asthma, including litters made of recycled newspaper, wood pellets, silica, wheat, and corn.” So I feel confused. My cat has used Feline Pine his entire life and developed asthma at age 10. Is Pine litter bad or not??
Camille Schake says
Hi Gene, thank you for this question! Regarding pine litter, it is true that many pine wood pellets used for cat litter are treated with a process called kiln drying that heats the wood to high temperatures to dry and harden it. During this process, one of the toxic compounds in pine wood called “phenol” mostly evaporates, but small amounts can remain. Since your kitty has now developed asthma, to play it safe and avoid any toxins that could be present in pine wood (including phenol and the acids mentioned above), you could always try an alternative wood fiber litter made with hinoki wood, fir, cypress, oak, ash, or beech woods and see if it helps. These are all viable wood pellet litter options.
There are currently lots of litter brands out there that use pine wood (it seems to have become quite popular lately), and some cats may never exhibit any issues with it. But since your kitty has developed asthma, it might make sense to switch to one of the other options and see how he does. The pine wood litter he has been using may not have caused his asthma, but trying another type without pine may be better for him now that he has it.
I hope this helps! Good luck, and please let me know how your kitty responds if you do decide to switch…I would be curious to hear if it makes a difference for him.