Asthma occurs when an allergen incites airway inflammation, resulting in varying levels of respiratory distress, more commonly in cats than in dogs, according to veterinarian Bernhard Pukay. Some cats experience mild symptoms such as coughing fits that resolve on their own, while others can have severe reactions that progress to panting and even death in rare cases, writes Dr. Pukay. X-rays help to make the diagnosis of asthma and rule out other conditions. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, according to Dr. Pukay, who points out that some cats may only need monitoring while others require medication.
Question: We have a four-year-old calico cat. About three months ago, she started wheezing and having coughing spells. These episodes only last for a few minutes and then she seems perfectly normal afterward. She is still very active and appears healthy otherwise.
Our vet took chest X-rays and told us she had asthma. We were also told that medication was not really necessary at this time. Is this true? What are the chances that she will get worse and eventually need treatment? Could this kill her?
Answer: Your cat has a condition called Feline Asthma, which has several other names, including bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis and allergic bronchitis. While it can be a problem in cats of all ages, it usually occurs most often in young and middle-aged cats. Dogs can also get asthma, but it is much more common in cats.
Put simply, asthma is an inflammation of the airways that is caused by an adverse reaction to allergens. Specifically, inhaled allergens cause a sudden contraction of the muscles around the windpipe and this leads to symptoms such as wheezing and coughing. It is usually difficult to determine precisely which allergens will trigger a reaction, but grass and tree pollens, house dust, smoke, sprays (hair sprays, deodorants, etc..) have been implicated.
Typically, a cat with a mild case of asthma will have a dry, hacking cough that may be confused with gagging, retching or vomiting. These cats will have episodes of coughing and wheezing, yet can be perfectly fine in between “attacks”.
In more severely affected cats, the coughing and wheezing may become a daily occurrence and they may experience breathing difficulties to such an extent that they start open-mouth breathing and panting. In a very small number of cases, feline asthma can be life threatening. In these cases, an injection of epinephrine may be necessary during a severe attack.
There are several other diseases that can mimic asthma. Heartworm disease, congestive heart failure, lung cancer and pneumonia can all show clinical signs similar to feline asthma. For this reason, veterinarians turn to diagnostic tools such as chest X-rays or ultrasound, blood tests (including heartworm testing) and tracheal and bronchial washings (i.e. taking cell samples by flushing the trachea and lungs).
Depending on degree of severity, treatment of feline asthma can range from simple monitoring to symptomatic relief of clinical signs. Medications such steroids, antihistamines, and bronchodilators are usually effective.
Corticosteroids are the most effective drugs for treating feline asthma because they reduce the inflammation in the windpipe and bronchi. Bronchodilators are also used in some cases because they help to open up the air passages to make breathing easier.
While there is no cure for feline asthma, fatalities are extremely rare. In patients where respiratory distress is not a manifestation and inflammation can be kept under control with medication, the prognosis for control of this disease is excellent. Unfortunately if inflammation cannot be controlled, lung damage can occur and the prognosis is more guarded.