Asthma, Feline

By Dr. Karen Burgess

What is feline asthma?
Feline Asthma is an airway condition in cats that in its worst forms can be life-threatening. Also known as allergic or obstructive lung disease, feline asthma has symptoms that closely resemble those of human bronchitis.

What causes feline asthma?
There is not one exclusive cause for asthma in cats. It is typically an abnormal response or sensitivity to an airborne agent, bacteria/virus, or parasites. This then sets off a cascade of inflammation in the lungs which ultimately leads to constriction or narrowing of the small airways, buildup of mucous in the airways, cough, and difficulty breathing. Asthmatic cats can then become more susceptible to secondary bacterial lung infections or even emphysema (air trapped in the lungs/overinflated lungs).

What are risk factors for developing asthma in cats?
Siamese, middle aged (two to eight years of age), and overweight cats may have a higher incidence.

What are symptoms of asthma?
Coughing or difficulty breathing are the primary symptoms associated with asthma. Often owners may mistake vomiting for coughing as they can look very similar. A good way to differentiate is that a cough will typically not have food or bile expelled. It may however appear as though a pet is swallowing after a cough. Youtube is another good resource for seeing examples of cats coughing (search for “cat cough”). Other signs or asthma include inappetance, vomiting, sneezing, and a squatting/neck extended stance while coughing. If a cat is open mouth breathing for any reason it is considered a medical emergency.

How does asthma get diagnosed?
Radiographs or x-rays of the lungs are typically taken to diagnose asthma. Evidence of inflammation on films along with consistent clinical signs is even more convincing. Additional diagnostics may include blood work, heartworm testing, feline leukemia/AIDS testing, and fecal parasite exam. A lavage or wash of the airways can also be used to identify specific cells in the airway.

What is the treatment for feline asthma?
Corticosteroids (steroids) are the common treatment modality for asthma. Available orally and via an inhaler, steroids reduce inflammation. While it can take time and patience to desensitize a cat to an inhaler device (similar to ones used for children), this form of steroid has less systemic side effects and is preferred for long term use. In some cases bronchodilators (oral or inhaled) can also be of benefit. In emergency situations sedation and oxygen may be necessary to stabilize a cat in crisis.

What is the prognosis with feline asthma?
While there is no cure, asthma can typically be managed and not affect quality or quantity of life. For cats that are in a crisis the condition can however be life-threatening within minutes to hours.

What other resources are available?
The website provides a wealth of knowledge on feline asthma. Yahoo also has several groups dedicated to this condition.