Asthma — a disease of the lower airways — is thought to affect as much as 5% of cats. There is some debate about what causes cat asthma, but most experts think it’s caused by an allergic reaction to something the cat breathes in.
When a cat inhales allergens, the immune system may react and create inflammation. Inflammatory cells may develop in the airways and produce chemicals that create more inflammation.
Symptoms of Cat Asthma
Some cats have more severe asthma than others. Symptoms of asthma in cats include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Coughing or hacking
- Chronic coughing
Your cat may also squat with hunched shoulders and neck extended and cough or breathe rapidly. Sometimes people assume their cat is hacking up a hairball.
Causes of Cat Asthma
There may be other factors, but allergies are thought to be the main cause of cat asthma. It’s an inflammatory response to allergens. If a cat or kitten is sensitive to certain allergens, the immune system may release chemicals that cause inflammation in the airways. The airways become irritated and tighten and cause difficulty breathing.
Allergens can also irritate the lining of cats’ airways, which causes bronchitis and mucus production. This can lead to coughing and sometimes to airway obstruction.
Some allergens considered to be asthma triggers in cats include:
- Tobacco smoke
- Aerosol sprays
- Household cleaners
- Dusty kitty litter
- Dust mites
- Fireplace smoke
- Candle smoke
- Certain foods
Other conditions may contribute to asthma symptoms in cats, including:
- Extreme stress
- Heart conditions
Are some cats more likely to have asthma? Any cat can develop asthma. Genetics may also play a role, but there isn’t enough research yet to be sure. Some research suggests that asthma may be more common in Siamese cats. But we don’t know for sure if some cat breeds are more likely to have asthma.
Cats who spend some or all of their time outdoors are more likely than indoor cats to develop asthma. Because they’re outside, they’re exposed to potential allergens.
Diagnosing Cat Asthma
Coughing and wheezing are uncommon in healthy cats. If you think your cat or kitten has asthma, or you are concerned about any symptoms, visit your veterinarian.
Keep a record of when you notice the symptoms developing and what type of symptoms affect your cat. Also record any changes to foods, kitty litters, or products you use that may be feline asthma triggers.
Your veterinarian will ask about your cat’s health history and do a physical examination which includes listening to your cat’s lungs and heart. They’ll ask you about any symptoms or changes you're concerned about.
Sometimes cat asthma or kitten asthma may look like other diseases like heart failure or lungworms, so your veterinarian may want to do a variety of tests. There is no specific test to diagnose feline asthma, and your veterinarian will rely on information, examinations, and different testing to make a diagnosis.
Your veterinarian may use a variety of tests, including:
- Chest X-rays
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Blood tests
- Allergy tests
- Fecal parasite tests
- Heartworm test
The X-rays and CT scan tests will help determine if the lungs are show signs of irritation or changes in size, or if there are any obstructions. Because heartworm disease in cats can show asthma-like symptoms like coughing attacks, heartworm disease is often misdiagnosed as asthma. Performing a heartworm test will help rule out heartworms as the cause of your cat’s symptoms.
Treatments for Cat Asthma
While there is no cure for asthma, it can be successfully treated. Your veterinarian will prescribe medications, such as corticosteroids, to reduce inflammation. They may also prescribe medications called bronchodilators to help dilate or open the airways.
Other ways to prevent cat asthma or alleviate asthma-like symptoms in your cat include:
- Healthy diet to reduce obesity
- Removing allergens
- Reducing stress
Some other natural and alternative treatments may include:
- Allergy desensitization
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Medications to decrease the likelihood of inflammation
However, these treatments are considered experimental and have not been proven effective for cat asthma.
Preventing Cat Asthma Attacks
Seek medical attention early when symptoms develop. This will help avoid more serious problems. However, the best way to prevent your cat from having an asthma attack is to use the prescribed medication for disease management.
Some home care techniques may also prevent asthma symptoms, including:
- Using low-dust kitty litters
- Avoiding aerosol cleaners and deodorizers
- Avoiding heavily-scented household cleaners
- Stopping smoking around your cat or decreasing the use of candles or a fireplace, since any smoke can be an irritant
If your cat is having an asthma attack, administer any emergency medication prescribed by your veterinarian and seek immediate medical attention.