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Can cats have asthma? Actually, they can. If your kitty is prone to wheezing, it might not simply be a hairball. She may be among the 1 to 5 percent of cats who develop feline asthma, according to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Keep reading to learn the signs of asthma in cats and find out how to help your wheezy kitty.
What Is Cat Asthma?
Just like human asthma, feline asthma is a respiratory condition affecting the lower airways that is believed to be triggered by inhaling allergens and other irritants, says Cornell. These irritants trigger an immune response that causes the individual bronchi (tubes) in the lungs to constrict and the surrounding tissues to swell, sending the cat into respiratory distress.
Although cats sometimes recover from asthma attacks on their own, the situation can be life threatening, so a cat experiencing an asthma attack should be taken to a veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Cats begin to develop asthma when the immune system develops antibodies to target a specific inhaled allergen, says Cornell. Then, when the cat inhales that allergen again, these antibodies go into overdrive, causing inflammation in the lungs that triggers swelling, irritation and airway constriction. As a result of all this, thick mucus accumulates in the lungs, further inhibiting the cat's ability to breathe. While exercise and stress can also trigger an attack in a kitty with asthma, Cornell identifies the following irritants as the most likely to cause an asthma attack:
- Cigarette smoke
- Fireplace smoke
- Dust and pollen
- Mold and mildew
- Household chemicals and cleaning agents
- Aerosol sprays
- Cat litter dust
How to Recognize an Asthma Attack
A cat asthma attack can be tough to spot because symptoms can easily be mistaken for a hairball, especially in the early stages. One way to tell the difference is to note your kitty's body posture, says The Spruce Pets. During an asthma attack, your cat will be hunched lower to the ground than she is when she's coughing up a hairball, with her head and neck fully extended in an attempt to take in more air. Listen for any wheezing, coughing or sneezing.
Another difficulty is that attacks might not happen that often, at least in the beginning, making them easier to dismiss as signs of something less worrisome. Other signs of asthma to watch for include wheezing or labored breathing following exercise, or exercise intolerance — meaning that your kitty easily becomes too tired for vigorous activity. This sign alone is a good reason to have your cat checked by a vet.
Diagnosing Cat Asthma
While there's not a diagnostic test specifically for cat asthma, says Cornell, your vet will likely run a battery of tests to rule out other causes. They may also gather information on your kitty's health history and your own observations at home.
In addition to blood and allergy tests and a cytology test (that looks at the mucus secreted from the cat's airways), your vet might perform an X-ray and a CT scan to view the condition of her lungs. If necessary, a bronchoscopy (examination of the airways) might be performed, which will require your kitty to be placed under general anesthesia.
Feline Asthma Treatment
If your cat has persistent asthma, she'll likely be started on a steady course of corticosteroid medication to reduce lung inflammation. A bronchodilator similar to a human inhaler might also be prescribed, to be administered as needed. These inhalers can be accompanied by a breathing champer specifically made for cats to help with their breathing.
In addition to medication, it's important to do everything you can to eliminate triggering allergens from your home. If you're a smoker, this means that for your cat's sake you should take your habit outside (and thoroughly wash clothing with pet safe detergents), and your kitty will need to be kept away from any wood-burning stoves or fireplaces. Give your home a thorough cleaning to eliminate mold, mildew and dust, and make it a habit to dust and vacuum regularly.
It's also a good idea to switch to pet-safe cleaning solutions with ingredients like plain vinegar and baking soda. You should avoid burning candles and incense or using scented plug-ins or air fresheners. Finally, if you use a clay-based cat litter, consider switching your litter to a dust-free formula or an alternative litter that uses dust-free elements like pine pellets, recycled newspaper or silicone crystals.
Unfortunately, cat asthma is not a curable condition. It is manageable, however, and with proper care and due diligence on your part, your asthmatic kitty can go on to live a long and happy life.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of furbabies.