Feline asthma is an inflammatory response to respiratory irritants and stress that narrows the airways, making it difficult to breathe.
• In cats, the cause appears to be an allergic reaction to environmental irritants that causes hypersensitivity of the airways
• Symptoms of asthma include coughing, rapid breathing, wheezing, and exercise intolerance
• An asthmatic crisis is an emergency, occurring when an affected cat cannot draw enough air into its lungs to survive, resulting in symptoms such as open mouth breathing and blue gums
• Cats with the symptoms of asthma require prompt veterinary care to avoid sudden crises
• Diagnostic tools include physical examination, X-rays, bronchoscopy, and treatment trials
• Medication is usually the primary treatment option, including corticosteroids and bronchodilators
• Management requires careful monitoring and reduction in irritants
• Prognosis with treatment and management is good
Asthma is a serious concern for cats because it is common, subtle, and can rapidly develop into a life-threatening condition without warning. Cats that cough or wheeze without apparent cause such as a hairball, even occasionally or slightly, require veterinary attention. Left untreated, some cats with asthma experience a sudden asthmatic crisis, where the airways constrict so severely it causes oxygen deprivation to the brain and body. This is a life-threatening condition. Early detection, treatment, and environmental management of asthma reduce the chance of a crisis leading to fatality.
Typical onset of feline asthma happens around age of 5 to 7 years, and appears to have a genetic component. Cats with pre existing allergies or immune-mediated diseases are more susceptible to asthma. Obese cats are more likely to experience respiratory issues from asthma, as excess body weight compresses the lungs and makes breathing difficult, even under normal circumstances.
Asthma ranges in severity from mild, chronic constriction of the airways with very subtle symptoms such occasional coughing or slight wheezing, to an asthmatic crisis. Symptoms of an asthmatic crisis include:
• Characteristic hunched posture with head held low to the ground
• Contraction and expansion of the abdomen during breathing
• Open-mouthed breathing
• Coughing, hacking, or wheezing
Left untreated, an asthmatic crisis can be fatal if the cat is not getting sufficient oxygen to the brain and body. Emergency veterinary attention is required.
The causes of asthma are not well understood at this time. In some cats, common allergens cause an extreme inflammatory response in the airways. The tissues in the airways swell with mucus intended to remove the allergens, making it difficult to breathe. For unknown reasons, this reaction causes hypersensitivity in the airways, so even a small amount of allergen or stress triggers inflammation. The cycle is progressive, getting worse over time as incoming allergens continue to heighten sensitivity.
Potential triggers include:
• Smoke from cigarettes, fireplaces, or incense
• Dust from kitty litter
• Household dust
• House mites
• Household molds
• Chemicals such as cleaners, air fresheners, perfumes, hairsprays, paint, etc
• Other inhaled or ingested irritants
Once the cycle of inflammation and hypersensitivity has begun, stress can trigger an asthma attack. Stressors include:
• Moving house
• The addition of a new pet to the household
• Physical trauma such as a fall, being attacked by another animal, being hit by a car
• Stressful events such as veterinary appointments
The symptoms of asthma include:
Cats that cough or wheeze, even if these symptoms are subtle or occasional, require prompt veterinary attention.
Diagnosis of asthma is not straightforward, as there is no single test that determines if a cat is asthmatic or not. Diagnostic tools include:
• Physical examination
• Evaluation of airway secretions
• Allergy testing
Typically cats require sedation during examination.
In the case that other respiratory diseases have been ruled out, asthma medication is administered. A positive response to the medication leads to an asthma diagnosis.
Asthma is primarily treated with medication, including corticosteroids to control inflammation and bronchodilators to open the airways.
In the case of asthmatic crisis, the immediate administration of the medications is usually sufficient to open the airways and restore normal respiration. In cases of chronic asthma, low doses of medications on an ongoing basis help to control the symptoms and avoid crises. Many cats require lifelong treatment to successfully manage their asthma.
Treatment alone is usually insufficient for full recovery. Environmental management of asthma triggers is also required. Management strategies include:
• Keeping the environment free from dust, chemicals, smoke, etc
• Cleaning bedding often and thoroughly
• Using low-dust kitty litter
• Weight management
• Avoiding stress
Asthma is a progressive disease with no cure. With ongoing treatment and environmental management, a long, healthy life is possible.
The same strategies that are aimed at managing asthma are useful in preventing it. In many cases, avoiding irritants such as chemicals, dust, smoke, etc, cleaning the cat’s bedding often and thoroughly, and using low-dust kitty litter prevents inflammation of the lungs, which means the cycle of inflammation and hypersensitivity is avoided altogether. Keeping cats at a healthy body weight is also beneficial to reduce the strain on the lungs caused by obesity.
Asthma is common in cats.
• Environmental management
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