Did you know that asthma can be an issue for cats? Initial signs are often quite mild, with some cats acting more withdrawn than normal, hiding more, breathing faster, or intermittent coughing. Then the signs seem to accelerate quickly and a frightened cat, gasping for air, is being rushed to a veterinarian by an even more terrified owner.
Many of us are familiar with asthma as a human disease and have seen the inhalers used to help people afflicted with asthma breathe. What many do not realize is that asthma can also be a health issue for cats, and if not treated, can be a very serious condition, and even fatal.
What is Asthma?
Asthma is inflammation of the bronchioles, the small passages in the cat’s lungs in which the air should be flowing through freely. Once the passages become swollen or are plugged with mucus, then cats will struggle to breathe. Their respiratory rate becomes faster and they audibly wheeze as the air flow is restricted through their lungs. While asthma can begin at any age, most of the time cats begin to have signs as young adults.
What are Asthma Signs in Cats?
Cats with asthma may not show signs early in the process. A cat with early asthma may just breathe faster, even at rest. As the inflammation progresses in the lungs, they may cough, to clear the passageways, or their breathing can sound wheezy or “whistlely” as if they are trying to draw air through a narrow straw. In a very acute asthma attack, a cat may appear as if they are panting, hunched, with their necks extended, and their gums may appear blue. Cats that are struggling to breath are very frightened and may hide or resist being picked up or touched.
No one knows why some cats are prone to asthma, and for the cats that are, any allergies or irritants in the air can aggravate their breathing. For that reason, we encourage cat owners to keep their pets indoors and use a dust–free cat litter. Cats with asthma should not be exposed to cigarette smoke, wood smoke, or any musty or poorly ventilated areas.
Diagnosing Asthma in Cats
To diagnose asthma, veterinarians will take radiographs (X-rays) which usually have a characteristic pattern in the lung fields, where the inflammation in the airways is visible. Many veterinarians think the thickened edges of the bronchi look like railroad tracks or thick donuts. Blood tests may also be done to check to see if there is an increase in certain types of white blood cells. Other tests include collecting fluid droplets from the airways in the lungs for analysis and bacterial culture.
It is important to try to rule out some of the other diseases that can mimic asthma, as the treatments can vary. Heart disease, viral or bacterial infection, respiratory parasites, and foreign material in the respiratory tract can have very similar signs. It is important to know what disease we are treating so that we can choose medications or other therapies that will have the best chance to help alleviate the signs.
Treating Asthma in Cats
With an abrupt attack, or if the early signs are not recognized, asthma can be a fatal. However, the disease can be well managed through therapy that rapidly decreases the swelling in their airways.
In emergency situations, when a cat is in severe respiratory distress, your veterinarian will give a steroid injection. Steroids will reduce inflammation quickly and keep it from swelling rapidly, and they are the cornerstone of therapy. While the steroids work, cats are often hospitalized in cages with a high percentage of oxygen flowing into the cage. This makes it easier for them to breath and prevents low oxygen levels in the blood. This condition, known as hypoxia, is dangerous, and can be fatal.
Cats may be treated with bronchodilators, medications that temporarily make the airways open and allow increased airflow. Inhaled steroids have fewer side effects and can be good for long–term care of asthma. Albuterol is a type of bronchodilator used in many human inhalers that can also be used for cats. This medication is given through an inhaler or a nebulizer.
Many owners are surprised at the thought that their kitty can be taught to use an inhaler! After all, how can you tell a cat to take a slow, deep breath? In reality, cats use inhalers in much the same way we get toddlers to use them. The inhaler can attach to a “spacer” device which holds the medication in a small space. A face mask attached to the spacer, allows the cat to breath in the air slowly. You can acclimate many cats to the face mask with treats, petting, and much encouragement.
If not in acute distress, oral steroids help to reduce the airway swelling and prevent it from getting dangerously swollen again. Many cats need to be on oral steroids, such as prednisolone, for the remainder of their life. Steroids do have side effects such as weight gain, excessive thirst, and the potential to trigger diabetes in cats. Due to these, the goal of therapy is to reduce the dose as much as possible. It is important to monitor the cat’s lungs, weight, and lab work. Your vet wants to make sure your cat gets enough medication to suppress the inflammation without developing other health issues.
Cat owners need to make sure that even if their pet is hungrier, they are not feeding them more. Excessive weight can cause a wide range of health problems. It is also important to know that they will be drinking and urinating more so litter boxes may require more scooping and emptying.
Vigilance is Key
Although asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed. Signs can wax and wane, lulling cat owners into thinking their cat is better and no longer needs medication. However, this is a dangerous assumption. As with people, it is always possible for their signs to flare and result in a scary situation where they cannot breathe. Careful vigilance and close partnership with your veterinarian are the best ways to prevent and minimize such events. If your cat is struggling to breathe, you should contact your family veterinarian or your nearest MedVet.