Feline asthma is a chronic disease that affects the lungs and lower airways. It can happen spontaneously, or as a result of an allergic reaction caused by inhaled irritants (cigarette smoke, dust or perfume). The airways become thick and mucus production increases, constricting the airway, which makes it difficult for the cat to breathe.
- Coughing (You may mistakenly think your cat is trying to vomit a hairball.)
- Exercise intolerance
- Difficulty breathing
- Shallow, rapid breathing
- Open-mouth breathing
Asthma can turn into a respiratory crisis. A rapid onset of breathing difficulty due to severe narrowing of the bronchi can be life-threatening. If you notice any of the above symptoms, call your vet immediately.
- Physical exam. Wheezes may be heard.
- Chest X-rays. These will show if the airway has constricted. The lungs will appear larger than normal and the diaphragm may seem flattened due to the over-inflation of the lungs pressing down on it.
- Tracheal wash. Sterile fluid flushed in and out of the airways, and then the cells and debris are examined under a microscope.
- First of all, remove any airway irritants. Make sure your cat has no contact with cigarette smoke, and purchase dust free cat litter.
- Treatment usually begins with medication called corticosteroids. This will decrease inflammation, which is what causes the constriction of the airway. Corticosteroids can be given orally. But as giving pills can be difficult with an asthmatic cat, a corticosteroid injection can be used as well. These injections are much stronger than the pills, and may cause side effects, so they can only be administered periodically. Your vet will advise you on the best treatment method for your cat.
- If your cat is responding well to the oral or injected steroids, this further confirms the diagnosis, and your vet may prescribe an inhaled steroid for long-term management. Inhaled steroids prevent continued inflammation without the side effects of oral steroids.
- Minimize inhaled irritants. Asthmatic cats should not be in a household with smokers. Use dust-free, unscented litter (recycled newspaper or wheat litter). Minimize use of incense, scented candles and perfumes in the house.
- If you use a potent cleaning product, make sure there is enough ventilation and your cat is in a different room until the air clears up.
- The cat should be removed from any home during construction or painting.
Cats with asthma usually need lifelong medical treatment. Doses can generally be reduced gradually. Your veterinarian will determine the best long-term treatment for your cat. As asthma is a chronic condition, complete control may not be possible, but with the proper treatment, your cat can enjoy good quality of life.