Feline asthma is a disease that is diagnosed relatively frequently in cats. Referred to as asthma because of the similarities to asthma in people, the signs seen in cats may appear similar to those seen in humans with asthma.
What Is Feline Asthma?
Feline asthma begins with inflammation within the airways. This inflammation results in spasms within the airways, which in turn leads to constriction and difficulty breathing.
Typical symptoms seen with feline asthma include coughing, wheezing, exercise intolerance, and difficulty breathing. In some cases, breathing may become so difficult that your cat exhibits open-mouth breathing.
The disease is often episodic in nature. Between episodes, your cat may seem perfectly healthy. However, there is currently no way to predict or measure when an “asthma attack” may occur or how severe an episode may be when it does occur. Severity may range from mild to severe and even life-threatening.
How Is Feline Asthma Diagnosed?
Feline asthma can be relatively difficult to definitely diagnose. There are other diseases that mimic the symptoms of asthma, with feline heartworm disease and other parasitic diseases of the lungs (such as lungworms) being among the other possibilities. These diseases can be especially difficult to differentiate from feline asthma and some veterinarians believe the true incidence of feline asthma is largely overestimated.
Diagnosis will rely on a thorough physical examination, with symptoms consistent with those expected with asthma. Radiographs (X-rays) of the chest are an important part of diagnosis, assuming that your cat is stable enough to undergo them. Routine blood, urine, and fecal testing may be recommended to help rule out other diseases. In cases where the diagnosis is uncertain, bronchoscopy or a tracheal wash may be used to collect specimens from inside of the airways for evaluation.
In some cases, even after extensive diagnostic testing has been performed, the cause of the illness may remain uncertain and response to treatment may be used as a form of diagnosis. In other cases, the cat may be too unstable to undergo rigorous testing. These cases may require institution of therapy, sometimes under emergency conditions, without any advance diagnostic testing.
Is There Treatment for Asthma in Cats?
Reducing and/or controlling the inflammation in the airways is mandatory in the treatment of feline asthma. Corticosteroids are the most commonly used drugs for this purpose. These drugs may be administered as an injection, an oral medication, or through an inhaler. Each form of delivery has both advantages and disadvantages. Your veterinarian will help you decide which method is most appropriate for your cat.
Bronchodilators, such as terbutaline, theophylline, or albuterol, are also commonly used in treatment. Like corticosteroids, bronchodilators can be administered as an injection (terbutaline), an oral medication (theophylline), or through an inhaler (albuterol).
Other medications sometimes used in treating cats with asthma include cyclosporine, cyproheptadine, various antihistamines, and zafirlukast.
Is There a Way to Prevent Asthmatic Episodes from Occurring?
Though it may not be possible to completely prevent the occurrence of asthma “attacks,” there are some preventive measure that may help.
Avoid dust, smoke, and other impurities in the air in your cat’s environment. Do not expose your cat to cigarette smoke. Use dust-free cat litter. Do not use sprays, including insecticidal sprays, in your home or around your cat. And change air filters frequently.
Dr. Lorie Huston