Cats are prone to asthma, whereas dogs are not, which only goes to show that cats are not small dogs — especially when it comes to health problems.
Feline asthma can develop at any age but is most common in young to middle-aged animals. The youngest patient I’ve treated with asthma was a 12-week-old kitten, although this is not typical. A more common age of onset is 7 to 8 years old.
Again, a quirk of cat medicine is that felines rarely cough, but asthma is one of those few conditions that may produce a cough, and a cat may even have an audible wheeze. If you notice your cat showing signs of asthma, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Asthma affects the lower airways and causes narrowing of the bronchi, increased mucus production and decreased mucus clearance. The end result is a cat who struggles to breathe.
A coughing cat is a rare thing and is commonly linked with feline asthma. However, the absence of a cough does not rule asthma out. During an asthma attack, many cats have a wheeze you can hear from across the room — but again, not all cats do. However, a cat in the grip of an asthma attack does have problems breathing.
Signs of difficult breathing include the cat sitting in the same spot for ages to rest and concentrate on breathing. She extends her head and neck into a straight line and opens her mouth (all signs of respiratory distress), and her chest moves in and out in an exaggerated manner.
Sometimes, her airways are so narrow that she has to use her stomach muscles to push air out of her lungs to get ready for the next breath — this is known as “abdominal effort.”
A desperately ill cat has gums tinged lilac or blue instead of a healthy pink. If you suspect your cat is having difficulty breathing (for whatever reason), never stress her. Leave her resting while you contact the vet and follow the vet’s instructions.
Feline asthma is an allergic reaction of the airways to something that was inhaled. Unfortunately, cats are exposed to any number of potential allergens that can sensitize their delicate airways.
Common offenders include cigarette smoke, air fresheners, aerosol sprays, hair sprays or perfumes. A sensitive cat only needs to stroll into the room at the same time you are spritzing yourself with scent, and an asthma attack could occur. Other trigger factors include house dust mite allergens or even dust from cat litter.
The allergic reaction causes muscle spasms in the walls of the small airways, which are then further narrowed. In addition, more mucus is produced, but the airway cannot clear it away, resulting in the airways becoming the equivalent of a blocked drain.
The vet’s first priority is to stabilize the patient with oxygen. Once the cat is breathing more freely, then the investigation can start. The most useful test is a conscious X-ray (taken in a calm environment so as not to stress the cat).
A good X-ray can rule out other causes of breathing difficulty (such as fluid around the lungs or lung tumors) and show patterns of thickening within the airways that may suggest asthma.
More sophisticated tests for asthma include a bronchial wash (this harvests cells for examination under the microscope, which can help rule out pneumonia), but this should only be done if the cat is strong enough to withstand the intervention necessary to collect the cells.
This helpful video shows how to properly dose an asthmatic cat when using an inhaler:
A cat having an asthma attack needs intravenous steroids to desensitize the airways and reverse inflammation.
Inhalers are also a great way to manage asthma, although getting the cat to breathe in the medication can be tricky, even with specially designed dosing chambers.
I remember talking to an eminent internal medicine specialist with an asthmatic cat. As is typical with many animals belonging to veterinarians, this cat refused to take medication (inhaler or pills), and so her mom (who lectured on the subject) was forced to give a less sophisticated treatment of once-monthly depot injections of steroid.
Long-term steroids are extremely effective at suppressing inflammation.
While asthma has no cure, removing risk factors, such as spray aerosols or scented cat litter, can go some way in reducing the likelihood of it developing.
Indeed, the specialist mentioned above advocated getting rid of carpets (which harbor dust mites) and banning cats from sleeping on the bed — neither of which she did!
- “Disorders of the trachea and bronchi.” Nelson & Couto. Small Animal Internal Medicine. 3rd edition. Publisher: Mosby. 291–295.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.