It may seem strange, but cats can suffer from asthma just as people do. The condition is very similar to that seen in people. A chronic inflammatory condition of the airways that is usually caused by an overactive immune response to certain triggers in the environment. It cannot be cured but with the right medication, it can be well managed.

What causes asthma?

Asthma (or chronic bronchitis) in cats can occur at any age and is usually triggered by allergens in the environment. The most common ones include –

  • Household dust and moulds – These can be hard to avoid. You can help your cat by keeping the environment as dust free as possible with regular cleaning and hoovering. Lots of ventilation and fresh air will also help.
  • Cigarette smoke – Smoking around your pet is never a good idea. As cats can suffer from secondhand smoke inhalation as well as developing certain types of cancer. Cigarette smoke can trigger asthma attacks in some cats.
  • Air fresheners and perfumes – Things like aerosol sprays or plug in diffusers can trigger an inflammatory reaction in your cat’s airways making their asthma symptoms worse.
  • Cat litters – Some dusty or scented cat litters could irritate your cat’s airways. Look for natural low dust versions where possible.

Some of these allergens can be hard to avoid. Whereas others (such as aerosol sprays) should never be used around cats with asthma.

Being overweight increases a cat’s chances of developing asthma, as does being an indoor only cat. Siamese and other related breeds can be more prone to this condition.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Symptoms of asthma can be quite subtle in cats, to begin with. But may worsen over time, particularly if they have a serious asthma attack.

  • Laboured breathing (more noticeable effort, stomach movement)
  • Faster breathing
  • Noisy, wheezing breathing
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Weight loss, reduced appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • Crouching down, with neck extended and elbows out
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Pale or blue gums
  • Collapse

A normal cat has a respiratory rate of 16 – 30 breaths per minute. If you notice that your cat’s breathing is often faster than this, or they suffer from any of the other symptoms on the list then you should contact your veterinary surgeon for an appointment. If left untreated your cat could one day suffer from a serious asthma attack, which could be fatal in some cases. 

A cat having an asthma attack will often be gasping for breath, have very pale gums, and be in severe distress. Whatever the cause, this is always an emergency and needs urgent veterinary attention.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Your vet will start by examining your cat, listening to their chest, and checking their temperature amongst other things. This will allow them to recommend the next steps for your pet. Blood work is often advised to check your cat’s general health status and to look for markers of infection and inflammation. Faecal samples may also be performed to rule out parasites that could cause respiratory issues, such as lungworm.

Your vet may then wish to perform some diagnostic imaging. This helps rule out other conditions such as heart problems or tumours which could also cause breathing issues. Radiographs (x-rays) are the most common way of doing this, with ultrasound being another way of visualising structures within the chest.

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Your vet may also suggest a bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) to get some samples of cells from your cat’s airways which can aid in the diagnosis of asthma. This can be performed ‘blind’ or with the use of an endoscope, a camera which is passed down the trachea (air-pipe). Sterile fluid is flushed into your cat’s airways and suctioned back out again, bringing with it cells from the linings of your cat’s lungs and airway passages. These can then be sent to the lab for analysis.

What is the treatment for asthma?

As asthma is an inflammatory disease, anti-inflammatory medication in the form of corticosteroids is most commonly used to treat asthma. This is ideally administered via an inhaler and a spacer device/face mask, to allow the cat to inhale the medication into its lungs. This means the medication is going directly where it needs to go and minimises systemic side effects. Some cats, however, won’t tolerate inhaled medications despite our best efforts, and then corticosteroid tablets or injections may be advised instead. Asthmatic cats may also benefit from broncho-dilaters to help open their airways up, as they can become narrowed and constricted during a flare-up. Antibiotics may also be required if your cat has any secondary chest infections

Some mild cases may not need medication at all and may be managed by avoiding allergens and maintaining a well-ventilated environment. Weight loss can also help improve symptoms. Your cat’s prognosis will depend on the severity of its symptoms though, in some more severe cases there can be ongoing irreversible changes in the lungs that could worsen over time.

Conclusion

Cats do suffer from asthma, just like people do, but their condition can be managed. Your vet will be able to advise you further on the diagnosis and treatment of this airway disease. If you are worried about your pet, make sure they are seen sooner rather than later to try and avoid an emergency from occurring.

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