Asthma in Cats

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Much like asthma in humans, feline asthma is a common respiratory disease that is incurable but is generally manageable with medical intervention. It has a variety of underlying causes, and it may occur at any time. Asthmatic attacks may be life-threatening, but knowing what signs and symptoms to look out for and when to seek treatment may help keep your cat safe and living well.

In this article

What is feline asthma?

Feline asthma is a recurring constriction, or narrowing, of the airways. Your cat’s airway system includes the trachea beneath the throat, the two bronchial tubes that bring air into the lobes of the lungs, and then the tiny tubes and sacs within the lungs that fill with air. When the airways in the lungs swell and become constricted, the flow of air is reduced, resulting in difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing. With asthma, the lungs are very reactive to irritants, causing mucus, spasms, swelling, and constriction. As the Cornell Feline Health Center states, feline asthma affects between 1% to 5% of cats.

Signs & symptoms of asthma in cats

If your cat has asthma, you may notice one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Dry cough (also known as a non-productive cough, meaning that nothing is coughed up). It may sound like your cat is trying to bring up a hairball. 

  • Wet cough (also known as a productive cough), where your cat may bring up airway secretions such as mucus

  • Labored breathing or shortness of breath

  • Open mouth breathing or panting

  • Exercise intolerance 

  • Noisy breathing or wheezing

  • Increased respiratory rate or effort at rest (>40 breaths/min)

  • Excessive abdominal movements (this may be an indication of heavy breathing or struggling to breathe)

  • Runny nose, sneezing (if an underlying allergy or infection is a factor)

Some cats may hunch over and extend their necks forward close to the ground during an attack.

What does a cat with asthma sound like?

Not all cats have the same asthma symptoms, but you may hear something different in your cat’s breathing. Due to the inability to inhale a normal or large breath of air, asthmatic airway constriction may cause wheezing, which sounds like “musical” sighing or a whistling noise. 

What causes asthma in cats?

The inflammation that occurs with feline asthma is often caused by the immune system overreacting to allergens and/or an acute (or sudden) allergic reaction. Environmental aeroallergens are usually the culprit and include things such as: 

  • Cigarette smoke

  • Perfumes

  • Pollens

  • Molds and dust

  • Insecticides or other chemical products like detergents and household cleaners

Stress may also trigger asthma in cats. Respiratory infections may have similar symptoms and make asthma worse.

However, an asthma attack may also happen spontaneously, without a known trigger.

Are some cats more likely to get asthma?

Siamese and Himalayan breeds and younger-aged cats are more likely to develop asthma. 

How is asthma diagnosed in cats?

Your veterinarian will first perform a physical exam of your cat or kitten. During their exam, they will listen to your cat’s lungs and heart with a stethoscope, assess their respiratory rate, feel the pulses in their extremities, and check their oxygen perfusion by observing the color of their gums. They may also recommend other tests to gather further information. Cats are typically diagnosed with asthma around 4 to 5 years of age, as the Cornell Feline Health Center states.

Some of the diagnostic tests your veterinarian may recommend include: 

  • Blood Gas Analysis: This blood test is a measurement of oxygen levels in your cat’s blood. 

  • Pulse Oximetry Measurement: This is another diagnostic that measures blood oxygen levels. A “pulse ox” uses a clip-on sensor (normally placed on the finger of a human), which may be placed onto your cat in areas of the body such as the ear tip.

  • Radiographs: X-ray images of your cat’s chest and throat may help your veterinarian to see whether there are any physical components attributing to your cat’s breathing problems. This allows them to visualize the trachea, lungs, and surrounding organs. However, according to Veterinary Information Network, up to 23% of cats with asthma don’t show changes on radiographs.

  • Transtracheal Wash and Bronchoalveolar Lavage: Both of these procedures involve a sterile solution being washed onto the air sacs or trachea while your cat is sedated, and then the solution is retrieved. A microscopic analysis and/or culture is then performed on the collected sample. The results of these tests may determine what type of bacteria or fungal infection is in your cat’s airways. 

  • Endoscopy: In this procedure, a long tube containing a fiber optic camera will be inserted into your cat’s airway to allow your veterinarian to see the inside of your cat’s airways. Your cat will be under sedation, calm and asleep.

  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: This imaging test, performed under sedation, provides a three-dimensional view of your cat’s airways.

Sometimes a response to medication may help veterinarians understand if asthma is causing your cat’s symptoms. As the Veterinary Information Network states, a dose of epinephrine (adrenalin) or terbutaline during an acute attack will usually reverse symptoms in a cat with asthma in about 15 minutes. Corticosteroids tend to resolve symptoms in about 30 minutes. This may sometimes provide diagnostic clues to you and your veterinarian.

Treatment for feline asthma

Treatment of feline asthma varies depending on the severity of your cat’s symptoms. The primary goal of treatment, regardless of being acute or chronic, is to reduce airway inflammation so that your cat returns to normal breathing. 

  • An acute asthma crisis, which can potentially be life-threatening, will require in-hospital treatments and monitoring to stabilize your cat’s breathing and reduce airway inflammation as quickly as possible. 

  • For chronic, or long-term, cases of allergic asthma, treatments for your cat may involve a regime of daily medications and at-home treatments. 

In-hospital treatments may include supplemental oxygen (either provided through a mask or in a specially sealed cage pumped with oxygen), corticosteroids (inhaled or taken by mouth), and injections of an airway dilator (also known as a bronchodilator) to reduce inflammation as fast as possible.

  • Oral corticosteroids may include prednisolone, budesonide, or dexamethasone.

  • Inhaled corticosteroids may include fluticasone or budesonide.

  • Bronchodilators may include albuterol, terbutaline, or theophylline.

These medications and/or combinations of them may be used long term, or on an as-needed basis. If your cat is still having problems managing asthma, cyclosporine may be added as a treatment option. It is an immunomodulator, which means it helps to tame down the immune system. 

Your veterinarian will provide a full workup and recommend treatment options. The extent of treatments and which treatments are performed are dependent on the underlying cause of asthma, and any other contributing diseases or infections your cat may have. 

What should I do if my cat is having an asthma attack?

An asthma attack may be a life-threatening event. If your cat is exhibiting signs of an asthma attack, contact your veterinarian immediately, or go to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. 

If your cat has already been diagnosed with asthma, please follow your veterinarian’s home care instructions in the event of an asthmatic episode.  

Is there a cure for asthma in cats?

Cats can’t be “cured” of asthma. It is a chronic condition. However, chronic asthma can be well-managed using daily treatments and preventive measures. 

Is feline asthma contagious for humans or other pets?

Feline asthma itself is not contagious to humans or other pets. 

What is the cost of treating feline asthma?

The cost of treating feline asthma can vary greatly depending on the severity of symptoms and what treatment is needed. The initial basic examination, testing and diagnosis may cost several hundred dollars. As asthma is a lifelong condition, owners should take into consideration the ongoing cost of medication and regular check-ups, which can vary in cost. If your cat experiences a severe asthma attack and requires emergency care, the cost may run into the thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of supportive care required. 

Recovery and management of asthma in cats

Recovery and management of feline asthma may include prescription medications and treatments that help reduce inflammation of the airways, treat any underlying infections, or help coughing become more productive to allow mucus to be expelled. 

  • Bronchodilators: These medications tackle acute constriction in the airways, allowing for them to expand more normally. Types of bronchodilators include albuterol, terbutaline, and theophylline, and depending on which medication is prescribed, they come in inhaled, oral, and injectable forms. 

  • Corticosteroids: This category of medication is helpful to reduce inflammation within the lungs, allowing for air to flow more easily. These may be administered in either oral forms (such as prednisone, budesonide), injectable form (dexamethasone, Depo-Medrol), or inhaled (fluticasone, budesonide). Long-term use of systemic steroids are not generally recommended as they may cause cats to develop diabetes mellitus and have other unwanted side effects. Therefore, it is important to use the minimum appropriate dose of steroids and perform monitoring lab work to keep an eye on your cat’s glucose and pancreatic enzyme levels. 

  • Inhalers: Inhalers are the primary treatment of choice for confirmed feline asthma. Much like in humans, metered dose inhalers containing corticosteroids (such as fluticasone/Flovent®) or bronchodilators (such as albuterol) may be prescribed to treat cats with asthma. Because we can’t tell cats when to take a breath, inhaled treatments require a special aerosol inhaler chamber made specifically for cats, such as the AeroKat Chamber

  • Immunomodulators: Immunomodulators, such as cyclosporine (also known as Atopica®), work to help suppress inflammation, and are most often used in cats with allergies. 

  • Antihistamines: If your cat’s airway restriction is being caused by an allergy, antihistamines may be prescribed by your veterinarian to alleviate allergens from triggering constriction. 

  • Expectorants: These medications work by thinning the mucus within the lungs to help allow your cat to have more productive coughing and expel the mucus.

Your veterinarian may also recommend preventive at-home asthma management. Reducing as many in-home allergens and irritants as possible is the main goal. 

  • Vacuum and clean often to help reduce the amount of allergens in the air, such as dust or pollen. 

  • Avoid using potential irritants within the home or around your cat or kitten. Irritants may include harsh cleaning products, perfumes, or cigarette smoke. 

  • Use a humidifier to help thin airway secretions and allow for more productive coughing. 

  • Use a dustless brand of litter.

  • Replace or clean any in-home air filters on a regular basis. We recommend HEPA air filters in spaces most commonly occupied by affected cats. 

How to prevent feline asthma

Some factors that contribute to the development of asthma attacks may be avoided, but you likely can’t prevent some cats from developing asthma in the first place if they are susceptible. Environmental aeroallergens within the home may be reduced through regular cleaning and air filtration management, using dustless litter, and avoidance of using products with perfumes or strong chemicals. 

Is there a vaccine for asthma in cats?

No, there is not a vaccine for feline asthma. 

Summary of asthma in cats

Feline asthma is generally manageable, and your cat can live a long and happy life despite having this condition. If properly managed, you and your cat will both be able to breathe easy knowing their asthma is under control. 

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