Asthma and Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease in Cats
Very similar to people, cats can suffer from asthma. When it flares up, your cat will cough and have difficulty breathing (dyspnea). Asthma is essentially inflammation of the lungs due to allergies. Immature heartworms can also cause a similar condition called Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease (H.A.R.D.). Symptoms and treatment, therefore, are very much alike for both asthma and H.A.R.D.
What to Watch For
- Difficulty breathing
- Wheezing (sometimes)
- Bluish or purplish gums
- Hiding or reluctant to move
Irritation of the lungs by unidentified allergens causes asthma. Similarly, H.A.R.D. is due to irritation caused by immature heartworms dying in the lungs.
There is limited treatment that can be done at home. It is best to get your cat to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Use the following steps when transporting your cat:
- Minimize stress and keep your cat calm.
- Do not restrict breathing, use a carrier or box.
- If your cat has been previously diagnosed with asthma and your veterinarian prescribed inhaled asthma medication, then use it as directed and contact your veterinarian. DO NOT use your own inhaler on your cat.
Your veterinarian may put your cat on oxygen upon arrival if he is struggling to breathe. Once your cat has relaxed a bit, and your veterinarian has completed a physical examination, X-rays will be taken of the chest. Other diagnostic procedures may include blood tests, including tests for heartworms, although heartworms tests in cats are not as useful as they are in dogs. In some cases your veterinarian might want to obtain cell and fluid samples from deep in the lungs, which requires a lavage of the airways. In spite of testing, your veterinarian may not be able to distinguish between heartworm disease and asthma.
If needed, your cat will be placed on oxygen until she is breathing easier. Bronchodilators and corticosteroids will likely be used to open the airways and relieve the inflammation in the lungs. Typically, your cat will be sent home once she is breathing normally and a tentative diagnosis has been made.
Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment for heartworm disease in cats.
Other conditions that affect the lungs and make breathing difficult include tumors, lung worms, foreign objects, and pneumonia.
Living and Management
Your cat will probably be put on glucocorticoids to help keep inflammation under control. Your veterinarian will discuss the use of an inhaled bronchodilator like terbuterol for future asthmatic episodes. If the problem is due to heartworms, the symptoms will resolve in time, as long as your cat does not become reinfected. She will need to receive treatment similar to a cat with asthma, as well as start taking heartworm preventative medication.
To prevent H.A.R.D., your cat should be on heartworm preventative, even if he is an indoor cat. Mosquitoes, which are carriers of heartworm larvae, can get into the house.
Asthma, on the other hand, is more difficult to prevent, though you can try to prevent asthma flare-ups in your cat much the same way you would for human asthma sufferers: use HEPA air filters, minimize carpeting, stop smoking, etc.