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You just got home from a long shift and flop down on the sofa to watch some TV and unwind. Then you hear what seems to be the familiar sounds of your cat coughing up a hairball. Except this time, it isn’t just a few hacks but a long, repeated string of them.

When you get up to see what is going on, you find your cat crouched on the floor with her neck outstretched, and she is coughing heavily. As you watch, it becomes clear that she is really distressed and that the fit isn’t passing quickly.

This might be a sign that your cat has asthma.

Can Cats Have Asthma?

The short answer here is that absolutely yes, cats are very regularly diagnosed with asthma.

Just as the incidence of asthma in people is increasing as our air quality worsens, there has also been an increase in the number of diagnosed asthmatic cats. Cat asthma can also be triggered by candles, potpourri, incense, smoke and spray aerosols .

Asthma in Cats Symptoms

Just like with people, the signs of asthma in cats can range from quite mild—where the cat is slightly laboring to breathe—to quite severe—where there is heavy and repeated coughing and wheezing.

But the most common sign that most owners notice with cat asthma is coughing.

In cats, this is seen as a kitty holding herself low to the ground, with the neck outstretched and making a loud, hacking-type noise. Many people mistake this with the sound their cat makes when coughing up a hairball. 

In reality, cats cannot cough up hairballs—they must vomit or regurgitate them because the hair is in the stomach and not the lungs. When a cat is trying to vomit a hairball, they generally stand erect with their back arched, often even backing up as they go.

If a cat is coughing, this indicates a potential problem in the airways, and most commonly, we consider both the lungs and the heart as concerns. A cat that is coughing hunkers down quite low and generally does not walk or move about while making the harsh cough.

Some cats with asthma will breathe very quickly or heavily, often with a wheezing sound. A kitty with asthma will usually show signs for a short period of time—sometimes even only for a few minutes—and then return to normal, like they are having a cat asthma attack.

However, over time, these episodes can become more severe and more frequent. Some animals with asthma will become very quickly distressed to the point of needing oxygen supplementation and emergency therapy.

As a general rule of thumb, if a cat is showing any sign of respiratory distress, such as more frequent or heavy respirations, breathing with the mouth open, wheezing or coughing repeatedly, she should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.  

Why You Should Talk to Your Veterinarian When You See Symptoms

Although many cases of respiratory problems can be addressed quickly and simply, there are several major and life-threatening diseases that can result in symptoms similar to those associated with cat asthma.

Many of these diseases will depend on what part of the country you live in, and your veterinarian will be able to help you determine the cause of these symptoms.

Things that we will often consider if consistent coughing and asthma-like behaviors persist include heartworm disease (which we see in cats anywhere in the country where dogs are affected), fungal infections, lung parasites, allergy diseases, heart disease and pneumonia, as well as others.

How Does a Veterinarian Diagnose a Cat With Asthma?

To diagnose a cat with asthma, there are a number of tests that your veterinarian will run. Often, our initial testing includes a blood panel that looks for all of the basic body-screening tests (some of which may help show if there is inflammation and allergic responses happening in the body). It will also screen for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency.

Heartworm testing is also usually included in this blood work in parts of the country where heartworm is common. Since heartworm disease in cats requires multiple tests, it is often sent out to a laboratory for testing (unlike the “in-house” version you may be used to if you own dogs).

Special testing may be needed for fungal screening, and fecal testing is necessary to look for parasites

The single most useful diagnostic test for asthma in cats is often the X-ray. Most veterinarians will take multiple views (three is considered the ideal) to look at the chest from different directions.

There are some hallmark features, such as over-inflated lungs and a flattened diaphragm, that strongly indicate that cat asthma is the problem. Advanced testing, such as taking airway samples, may be needed for animals that are not showing the classic signs or that have multiple concerns based on the initial screening tests.

What Does Treating Asthma in Cats Entail?

Often, our first concern is to stabilize the cat, particularly if they are having active trouble breathing or coughing heavily. This may mean a few hours in an oxygen cage, along with some injectable asthma medications for pets to help open up the airways and reduce inflammation. 

Once kitty is feeling better, the change is commonly made to an oral steroid—a prescription pet medication designed to help keep inflammation at a minimum—which is very effective in most animals. Unless the reason for the asthmatic attack can be determined, the vast majority of cats need long-term or lifelong therapy. 

My preferred approach to treatment is to put the cat on an inhaled cat asthma medicine—much like asthmatic humans will take. This can usually be done with a small pediatric face mask and a spacer, which is a small plastic tube that goes between the mask and the inhaler to protect your cat’s face.

This medication has the advantage of getting directly to the lungs without the side effects of being absorbed throughout the body as well. Additionally, a second inhaled medication can be used to treat a flare-up immediately at home—preventing an emergency run to the clinic if there is an asthma attack.

Inhaled medications provide a lot of flexibility in treatment and minimize the potential side effects. They are also usually well-tolerated by most pets.

Another important component of therapy is to limit the exposure of the cat to anything that could be inhaled that might cause a cat asthma flare-up—such as scented candles, incense and smoke.

What Is the Long-Term Prognosis for Cats With Asthma?

Most cats with asthma do amazingly well over time. It will just take some effort to get them diagnosed, stabilized and into a routine.

Some cats will have seasonal flares—for example, when there is a lot of pollen in the air or when the house is closed up in the fall; but once we learn to anticipate these, it is possible to act accordingly to try to minimize the impact.

And although it can be scary to witness a cat asthma attack, it is fortunately something we can handle quite readily for the vast majority of cats.

By: Dr. Sandra Mitchell

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