Most cat owners will be familiar with the hacking sound that their cat will make before depositing a furball on the living room carpet! However sometimes cats make similar sounds for other reasons, for example if they are wheezing due to a respiratory condition. It can be difficult to tell whether there is a need for concern. 

What causes wheezing? 

Wheezing is caused by air being forced through narrowed airways, which results in an abnormal high-pitched sound. It is usually heard on expiration (breathing out). It can sometimes be accompanied by other respiratory signs such as coughing ‘fits’ (your cat may sound like he/she is trying to bring something up, but nothing is produced) and fast or laboured breathing. 

In the most severe cases, your cat may appear to be having real difficulty breathing. They may breathe with his/her mouth open (“open-mouth breathing”). This is a sign of severe distress and requires immediate veterinary attention. In this circumstance try to keep your cat calm and contact your veterinary clinic for an examination as soon as possible. However, in many cases of asthma, the signs may be subtle, such as a slightly increased breathing rate. As always, cats are the master of disguise when it comes to hiding their ailments! 

What does wheezing mean?

Wheezing is an indication that there may be a problem with your cat’s lower airways and lungs. 

Feline Asthma

The most common cause of this in cats is feline asthma. Like asthma in humans, it is thought that asthma in cats involves an allergic reaction to an inhaled trigger. This irritates the lining of the airways and causes an inflammatory response. When the airways become inflamed, they become constricted (resulting in the wheezing noise). This produces more mucus (which can clog the airways and make breathing more difficult). 

Any cat may be affected by asthma, but the signs most commonly start to show in middle-aged cats. There is also a breed predisposition in Oriental breeds such as the Siamese. 

Infections and other causes

Other conditions which can result in wheezing include infections (bacterial or viral), parasites such as lungworm, inhaled foreign bodies and lung cancer. 

On a topical note – there have been a very small number of cases of Covid-19 (coronavirus) confirmed in cats which were showing respiratory signs. These cats appeared to have caught the virus from humans, but currently there are no reports of cats passing it onto humans. It must be noted that these are an extremely small number of cases, so if your cat is wheezing it is highly likely that coronavirus is not the cause. 

To work out why your cat is wheezing, it is essential to book a visit to your veterinary surgeon who will work with you to determine the cause. 

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What might the vet do if my cat is wheezing? 

Your vet will ask you questions about any signs your cat is showing. If your cat only wheezes occasionally it may be helpful to bring along a video of your cat wheezing if you can catch them doing it, in case they are not doing it during the visit to the vet. This can help the vet decide whether the sounds are caused by wheezing and not caused by anything else. If your vet suspects that your cat is wheezing, they will likely suggest some tests to confirm the cause. 

Further tests

These may include: 

  • X-rays of the chest. These normally require your cat to be given some sedative drugs to make him/her sleepy and still to allow a good quality x-ray to be taken. 
  • Blood tests – these will provide information on whether your cat has an active infection, or whether your cat has any other unrelated conditions e.g. kidney disease which may affect the treatment of the respiratory condition. 
  • Bronchoscopy – this involves passing an endoscope (tube with a tiny camera on the end) into the lower airways to look for inflammation, foreign bodies or evidence of infection or parasites. 
  • Airway washes – this procedure involves collecting some fluid from the lower airways to give a sample of the cells from the airway lining. This sample will be analysed at the lab to give information on the exact type of inflammation present, and the likely cause. 

Not all of these tests will be required in every case. 

How is it treated?

Depending on the suspected cause, your vet will advise the most suitable treatment plan. If your vet diagnoses your cat with asthma, there are various ways of treating it. 

Treatments include: 

Steroid drugs

These have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. Because asthma is an inflammatory condition, steroids are often the best defense against it. These can be administered either as an injection given by your vet, tablets given in your cat’s food, or in an inhaled form (for anyone familiar with asthma in humans, steroids are contained in the brown inhalers). Sometimes your vet will give an injection and/or prescribe steroid tablets first to get the symptoms under control, before moving onto the inhaled version. Some names of steroid drugs that may be used include prednisolone (tablets) and fluticasone (inhaler). 

Bronchodilator drugs 

Like salbutamol, these are most often used in cats in inhaled form (like the blue inhaler used by humans with asthma). These drugs act to open up the narrowed airways, allow better air flow and making breathing easier. 

How do we use an inhaler in a cat?

You may be surprised to learn that with practice, many cats will tolerate use of an inhaler very well. The inhaler needs to be used with a mask which is gently held over your cat’s face, attached to a ‘spacer’ device (see image). Your veterinary practice will help you with getting your cat used to it. The main advantage of using an inhaler is that provides a dose of drug directly into the airways precisely where it is needed, without having much effect on the rest of the body. Because of this, inhaled treatment is often highly effective but with minimal or no side effects. 

Is there anything else we can do?

Weight loss if your cat is overweight. 

Being overweight can make the signs of asthma much worse. If your vet suggests weight loss this will help with reducing respiratory signs. It will also have other benefits for your cat’s health. 

Environmental changes. 

Your vet may suggest measures to reduce the chances of your cat being exposed to triggers for asthma. These may include avoiding the use of air fresheners and diffusers which may irritate your cat’s airways. Avoiding smoking in the house, and regular washing and vacuuming of carpets, soft furnishings and your cat’s bedding. These may help somewhat with reducing your cat’s wheezing. However, it is unlikely that these measures alone will be sufficient to stop it. In almost all cases, your cat will require the help of drugs as mentioned above. 

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It is important to note that in most cases, the condition can be very well managed. Cats will go on to live happy lives!

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