Yes, cats can have asthma, here’s what you need to know about this disease.
After a string of feline patients coming in with respiratory distress and diagnosing a handful of them with asthma, I felt it was time to write this article.
First, let’s start with some of the basics. What is feline asthma?
Feline Asthma refers to a chronic lower airway condition in cats. It is characterized by inflammation in the bronchi, which are small airways within the lungs. The underlying cause of the inflammation is oftentimes not definitively identified; however, it is generally thought to be environmental irritants — similar to what many people experience.
It’s thought that the body overreacts to inhaled irritants, such as pollen, dust, or other debris. The body then sends inflammatory cells into the airways to combat these perceived invaders. These cells release further mediators of inflammation which cause damage to normal tissue, recruit additional inflammatory cells, and perpetuate the cycle. These processes together eventually disrupt the normal lining of the airways and lead to them becoming thickened and inflexible.
So far, all that I’ve mentioned regarding the disease is occurring microscopically inside your cat’s lungs, but what might you expect to see at home?
Generally, cats appear clinically normal for long periods of time as the airway inflammation and structural changes are becoming more chronic and sustained. However, the most common clinical sign reported is a cough. The cough is generally mistaken for an attempt to expel a hairball or to vomit. The patient will usually sit on all fours and make a hacking/wheezing sound while holding their neck straightened out in front of them.
This is frequently the only sign that owners report especially early in the disease, but in more severe cases you will often see open mouth breathing, more typical appearing cough, or actual respiratory distress.
Once these signs are found, your veterinarian will usually recommend an X-ray to arrive at the diagnosis of Feline Asthma. There are additional diagnostic tests that can help confirm the diagnosis, but they are rarely pursued for a variety of reasons — namely cost and technical difficulty.
Is there treatment for Feline Asthma?
Fortunately, asthma is a condition that we have relatively effective treatments for. Unfortunately, it is a lifelong condition and requires a little bit of back and forth with your veterinarian at the start to make sure things are stable enough for the long-term. It is also not a condition for which we have a cure.
My own cat, when I was young, suffered from feline asthma and we managed her with pills throughout her entire life. She gave us a few scares where she ended up in the emergency clinic on Oxygen for an evening, but overall she did very well with the treatment.
The keystone treatment is a steroid. There are two primary routes of administration for steroids that are important in managing asthma. The first route is a steroid taken by mouth. This is the first-line route of administration because it works more quickly than the others to stop inflammation for the long term. The second route is inhaled steroid which is administered through an apparatus that is essentially an inhaler for cats. An example of this can be seen here. The inhaled steroids work more slowly and take about 2 weeks to fully kick in. Inhaled steroids are often significantly more expensive than oral steroids as well, so this may be a discussion point for some kitty owners.
A third route worth mentioning as a side note is by injection. Injectable steroids will be used in an emergency or urgent situation by your veterinarian managing your pet. It is rare that an injectable steroid would be sent for use at home, so while the injection route is the fastest acting it is not a therapy chosen for long-term management.
In addition to a steroid, oral bronchodilators are often used. These serve to help expand the small airways that have been thickened and constricted by chronic inflammation. These can be somewhat expensive, so may not be an option for everybody.
Beyond medication, there may be some environmental changes you can make to help your cat with its disease. It can be useful to reduce airborne irritants in the household. So, purchasing an air filter, or improving ventilation where potential airway contaminants are high may be useful. Additionally, if your cat goes outdoors you can conceivably wipe them off with a damp cloth when they come inside which may help trap and remove some of the allergens and irritants. Though, not all cats will enjoy this procedure.
Omega-three fatty acids have also been shown to have some benefit for cats with asthma. However, it is important not to rely too heavily on these additional therapies. Steroids in some form are truly necessary to manage this condition, and without them, the disease will continue to progress on a microscopic level. This progression will eventually translate into additional or worsening clinical signs.
Feline asthma is a chronic lower airway condition that affects many cats. It often presents suddenly because cats are excellent at hiding their signs of illness until they are severe. Fortunately, it is a disease that is very manageable for most cats and they can go on to lead a normal life, albeit with a few more medications.
Thanks for reading!
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