Cats Can Get Asthma Too

Live Beyond 9 Lives banner This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Feline asthma affects about 1 percent of cats between the ages of 2 and 8. Though Siamese cats may be slightly more susceptible to developing the condition, it can appear in any breed. Overweight felines are at greater risk. As with bronchial asthma found in humans, feline asthma is characterized by hypersensitivity to environmental allergens. For example, seasonal allergies may exacerbate asthma in cats that have the condition. There are a number of things that can trigger feline asthma. They include:

  • Pollens or mold, house dust mites, and dander from pets or people
  • Inhaled debris or external irritants such as cat litter dust, cigarette smoke, carpet cleaners or scented laundry detergents
  • Viruses and bacteria
  • Parasites such as heartworms and lungworms

Clinical signs of asthma The most common symptom to look for is coughing. Cats are excellent at vomiting, so as an owner, if you see something that looks like your cat is trying to vomit, but doesn’t produce anything, it’s probably a cough. When coughing, your cat may also assume a squatting position with its neck extended. The next sign to watch for is respiratory distress, which includes difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and open-mouthed breathing. You may be able to hear wheezing, but not necessarily. If you suspect that your cat may have breathing troubles, ask your vet to check. He or she can easily hear any wheezing with the stethoscope. If you notice open-mouthed breathing, take your cat to your vet or a 24-hour veterinary center immediately. Asthma attacks can be fatal to cats! Diagnosing asthma Your vet will first run diagnostic tests that could include comprehensive lab work, feline heartworm test, a fecal exam and urinalysis. These tests can assess your cat’s general health and show if there are any other potential causes of the clinical signs, including feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency. The presence of eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, is associated with allergies or parasitic diseases. Higher levels of eosinophils can support a tentative diagnosis of asthma. Your vet might also take a chest x-ray to determine if there are any changes in the lungs due to asthma or any other respiratory or cardiac diseases. If necessary, a fecal exam on your cat’s stool may be required to rule out lungworms, which can cause asthma like symptoms. Occasionally, there will be no clear cause of the breathing difficulties despite extensive diagnostic testing. In these cases, additional specialized testing may be necessary including a bronchoscopy, cytology and/or tracheal lavage. The bronchoscopy allows the vet to look into your anesthetized cat’s airways with a small fiberotic scope. The cytology exam looks at mucus samples from the cat’s bronchi. In a tracheal lavage, a small amount of saline is flushed into the airways and retrieved, bringing a small sample of material from the lung in the process. Treatment of asthma There are several options for treating feline asthma. For any cat with asthma, it’s helpful to understand what triggers or aggravates your cat’s airways and causes an attack so you can reduce your cat’s exposure to those triggers. In some cases, it might be as simple as changing the brand of litter you buy, not smoking in your home or limiting your cat’s time outdoors. Part of your cat’s maintenance plan will likely include corticosteroids. They are effective in decreasing the production of mucus and inflammation, and help to open up your cat’s airways. Unfortunately, corticosteroids have some side effects and should not be given or stopped without consulting your veterinarian first. Additionally, many feline asthma patients, just like humans, need some variation of a bronchodilator. These drugs open up the airway quickly and allow your cat to breathe more freely, especially during an attack. Adaptors that fit on the end of the inhaler can be purchased to help you give it more effectively. Additionally your vet can help train you on proper administration. In serious cases that require hospitalization or in an emergency situation during a severe asthma attack, your cat will likely be given a combination of bronchodilators, oxygen cage therapy, fast-acting glucocorticoids and/or epinephrine. For more information please visit our Feline Health Library.

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