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. 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.
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Has your cat ever been diagnosed with feline asthma? Please share your story with us in the comments below!