Asthma in cats is very similar to asthma in people. It is usually caused by an allergy or hypersensitivity reaction and leads to coughing and difficulty breathing. Asthma is triggered by inhaling an irritant particle or allergen which leads to increased mucus production and a narrowing of the airways in the lungs.
What are the signs of a cat with asthma?
Cats may have mild signs of a problem, or start with a severe asthma attack.
- fast breathing
- noisy, wheezy breathing
- difficulty getting a breath
Some cats, such as Siamese, seem more prone to developing asthma. Asthma is most common in middle-aged cats but can develop at any age.
How is asthma diagnosed?
There are many different respiratory problems that can look the same as asthma at first glance so some tests will be needed to confirm whether it is asthma or another of these issues, such as:
- heart disease
- bacterial infections, e.g. pneumonia
- foreign body (e.g. an inhaled grass blade or grass seed)
- lungworm or heartworm
Tests that may be needed include:
- blood tests – to check for evidence of infection, or heart disease
- chest x-rays – to look at the lung tissue and look for the typical abnormalities of asthma, or one of the other problems. This will usually require an anaesthetic to get a good picture.
- bronchoscopy – passing a small camera down into the lungs to look at the larger airways and collect samples. This will require a general anaesthetic.
- bronchoalveolar lavage – usually performed straight after a bronchoscopy under the same anaesthetic, this involves putting a small amount of sterile fluid into the airways and sucking it back to collect cells and fluid from the small airways to check for inflammatory cells, bacteria, cancer cells, or evidence of parasites.
How is asthma treated?
The treatment will depend on the severity of the condition. If your cat is taken to the vet having an acute asthma attack, they will need oxygen, injectable steroids and bronchodilators to get the breathing under control. They may also require a mild sedative as the anxiety of struggling to breathe can actually make the breathing worse.
It is important to try to recognise any triggers or aggravating problems and remove these if possible. These include:
- obesity – fat around the lungs can make breathing more difficult
- irritants in the house – dusty environment, cigarette or other smoke, pollen from household plants, perfumes or air-freshener sprays
- secondary infections – these will need treating with antibiotics
There are two main classes of treatment used to treat asthma.
These reduce the inflammatory response and make asthma attacks much less likely. They often need to be used long-term. Corticosteroids are the most common medication used as an anti-inflammatory in asthma. They do have potential side effects when used long-term and increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes. For this reason, they are best given targeted to the area affected rather than administered to the whole body, in this case, the lungs.
Inhalers – usually the same ones used for human asthma – administered using a spacer and face mask are the best method of giving steroids to cats with asthma to maximise the benefit and minimise the side effects. Many cats will tolerate this well although it may take a bit of training to get them used to it.
If your cat won’t tolerate an inhaler, or to treat them during the initial training phase, treatment with tablets, liquid or injections may be needed. With tablets or liquid, the aim is to reduce the treatment frequency as much as possible for long-term treatment, ideally every other day or even every third day.
These help to widen the airways and make breathing easier. They usually work very quickly but also wear off quite quickly. They may need to be given regularly, or just reserved for times when steroids alone are not working. Bronchodilators can also be given by mouth, by injection or by inhaler. Again, inhalers are best where possible as the drug is taken straight to where it is needed.
How do I give an inhaler to my cat?
You will need to get a prescription from your vet for the actual inhaler, and get a spacer chamber with a face mask. Some people adapt ones designed for children, but there is one designed for cats called the Aerokat Feline Aerosol Chamber which is likely to fit better over your cats face.
For details of how to acclimatise your cat to the chamber, see the video below.