What is it?Feline asthma and feline inflammatory bronchial disease are respiratory conditions frequently seen in cats. Inflammation in the lungs causes the airways to narrow (constrict) and the cells lining the airway to produce more mucus, both of which make it more difficult to breathe.
Why is it important?Affected cats are often less active and can suffer from symptoms for many years and in some cases require medication for life. In severe cases it causes life-threatening respiratory distress which requires emergency veterinary attention.
What's the risk?Bronchial disease can affect any age of cat although asthma is typically associated with young to middle-aged cats and more often with Siamese and related breeds.
What happens to the cat?
As the disease usually progresses slowly symptoms may be missed for a long time, however, classic symptoms include a cough and increased effort breathing. This can vary in severity and frequency with mild cases having long gaps between episodes and severe cases coughing daily.
Some cats present with vomiting and “hacking-up” hairballs instead. Cats having an “asthma attack” will usually present with open mouth breathing (panting), difficulty breathing and purple gums. These cats must see a vet immediately but be handled gently with as little stress as possible. A cat who is panting is very vulnerable to stress which can further impede their ability to breathe, potentially leading to collapse.
How do you know what's going on?
Vets are normally suspicious of bronchial disease based on your cat’s history and clinical signs. The lungs often sound “harsh” or wheezy and the way your cat breathes (the breathing pattern) may also be altered. Despite suspecting asthma or bronchial disease the only way your vet can be certain is to rule out all the other possible causes.
Diagnostic tests may include: Blood tests to assess for underlying systemic disease as well as type of inflammation. Blood or faecal tests to rule out infectious and parasitic causes such as lungworm. X-rays of the chest to look at the airways, which may appear thickened or normal, but also rules out other lesions such as cancers within the chest cavity.
Bronchoscopy (passing a camera down into the lungs) to visibly look at the inside of the airway for changes. A lung wash (broncho-alveolar lavage, BAL) to collect samples from the inside of the lungs to look at under the microscope. In affected cats this often shows inflammatory cells in higher numbers than normal.
What can be done?
Both asthma and bronchial disease are typically treated with steroids. This is usually started at a high dose but then decreased slowly over time to find the lowest effective dose i.e. the lowest dose that controls your cat’s symptoms. Some cats may be able to come of medication completely while others may need daily medication for the rest of their lives. Oral steroids are normally well tolerated and are very affordable; however, long-term use has a list of side effects which you should be aware of as they are not always desirable.
For cats who are not willing to take oral medication or where side effects want to be avoided, the use of inhalers (like those used by humans) attached to a mask/spacing chamber can be used. It may be necessary to “train” a cat to use the inhaler correctly but this method can provide excellent control without the systemic side effects making it the treatment of choice in most cases. However, inhalers are more expensive than oral steroids making cost an important factor to consider. During life-threatening episodes your cat will need to be kept calm and supplied with oxygen at the vets while medication is given to open the airway.