Image of veterinarian gently holding down a cat on the exam table as they prepare to administer an inhaler.

Key takeaway

Cat asthma is a condition characterized by chronic airway inflammation caused by allergens. A cat with asthma may exhibit signs such as heavy breathing, lethargy, and mouth breathing. There are several options for managing asthma in your cat, but if you believe they’re having an asthma attack, it’s important to take them to the vet as soon as possible.

Most of us have met someone suffering from asthma at some point, but did you also know that your cat might benefit from a smaller, feline inhaler? It’s true, some cats have asthma too, and just like in humans, it’s a condition that makes it hard for cats to breathe properly.

Most experts believe cat asthma is an adverse reaction to an allergen in the air your cat inhales at some point, but some report stress and air pollution including second hand smoke may play a role as well1.

Asthma is a respiratory disease characterized by inflammation of the lower airways in the lungs. As this inflammation occurs, the airways become smaller making it hard for cats to take a full breath. There are effective treatments for cat asthma and measures you can take to reduce the chances of an asthma attack for your cat.

In this post we’ll review some of the best practices to prevent cat asthma and talk more about what cat asthma is, what causes it, and how to treat it.

What Is Cat Asthma?

Feline asthma is a breathing condition that occurs in around one to five percent of cats and most experts describe it as a chronic progressive disease which means it can become worse if left untreated1. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, when your cat inhales an allergen they are susceptible to, their body produces an immune response that can cause inflammation, irritation and swelling in the lungs2.

Graphic titled “What Happens When Your Cat Has an Asthma Attack?” accompanied by four icons with text that reads, “1. Allergens are inhaled. 2. The immune system responds causing inflammation. 3. Inflammation shrinks the airways. 4. Less airflow gets through, affecting your cat’s breathing.”.

You might find your cat is coughing or wheezing which are common signs of an asthma attack. During an asthma attack, the lung constrict and mucus can be released into the lungs which makes the attack harder to breathe through. The condition varies from mild to severe so signs aren’t always easy to identify at first.

Mild conditions usually don’t impact a cat’s life too much but as the disease progresses it can get in the way of normal activities and become debilitating. It’s important to pick out an asthma attack quickly because if your cat is having a severe attack, lack of treatment could be fatal.

Causes Of Cat Asthma

The most common cause of cat asthma is allergens in the air, which means the condition is partly preventable and that any cat can develop asthma. Certain allergens can trigger an immune response causing inflammation in the lungs. This will vary depending on your cat and the environment.

Graphic titled “Common Household Asthma Triggers for Cats” featuring icons that are labled in this order, “Smoke, Pollen, Dust Mites, Household cleaners, Certain foods, Perfumes”.

There is some research that may indicate that certain cat breeds may be more likely to suffer from asthma, although more research is required1. Experts say outdoor cats are more likely to suffer from asthma simply because they are more likely to come in contact with more potential allergens.

  • Common irritants that cats may be allergic to include:
    • Smoke
    • Pollen
    • Dust mites
    • Perfumes
    • Household cleaners
    • Certain foods
    • Essential Oils
  • Other health conditions can also contribute to the potential for asthma attacks:

Signs Your Cat Might Have Asthma

There are a number of telling signs that will help you recognize cat asthma symptoms. You can look for the same symptoms you may have experienced if you’ve ever had trouble breathing during a cold such as coughing or wheezing. Healthy cats typically do not cough, so that is a common symptom to watch out for. This is often mistaken for a cat trying to cough up a hairball which can make diagnosis tricky especially in cases that are mild. The University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center provides some other cat asthma symptoms listed below3:

Graphic featuring a cat titled “Signs Your Cat Might Have Asthma”, accompanied by a list that reads “Heavy breathing, Mouth breathing, Wheezing, Coughing or hacking, Fatigue and weakness”.

Cats with asthma may exhibit symptoms such as:

  • Heavy breathing
  • Mouth breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing or hacking
  • Fatigue and weakness

What To Do If Your Cat Is Having An Asthma Attack

Identifying a cat asthma attack isn’t always straightforward unless your cat is having a severe attack.

Generally the onset of a cat asthma attack will begin with rapid breathing. If your cat is moving around at the onset, it may stop and stand still. You might see your cat hold its mouth open to take in more air. Keep an eye out for movement of the cat’s abdomen and shallow breathing patterns. If you get close to your cat you might hear faint wheezing as well which is a sign your cat is struggling to take air into their lungs.

Image of owner using a bronchodilator to help their cat breathe during an asthma attack.

Try not to panic if you find your cat experiencing an asthma attack, but try to act quickly to help ease their breathing tension. You can administer medication if they’ve been prescribed one, and if they are experiencing a severe attack, call your vet immediately and try to cool the room down. Even if they have a minor asthma attack, it may be worthwhile to take them to the vet just for a checkup to make sure everything’s okay and their breathing has been restored to normal.

Diagnosing Cat Asthma

Since asthma typically only presents in cats when they’re triggered, it can be complicated to diagnose.

There are a few tests a veterinarian may perform in order to determine if your cat has asthma, or if they’re suffering from another condition that may share similar symptoms such as feline heartworm or a respiratory infection.

Vets will usually begin with a physical exam and use a stethoscope to listen to your cat’s breathing patterns. This can also help them eliminate any misdiagnosis, but a blood test might be more conclusive. Vets look for a large number of white blood cells in a particular area to signal an allergic response. X-rays are helpful in showing whether your cat is “trapping air” in their lungs and is unable to fully exhale.

Methods for diagnosis may include3:

  • Blood Test
  • Urinalysis
  • Heartworm Test
  • Fecal test for lungworms or other parasites
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Bronchoscopy (A thin, lighted tool that provides a look at the airways.)

Although asthma can be mistaken for other conditions, heartworm tests and scans are usually very helpful in figuring out what’s affecting your cat’s wellbeing. In order to help your vet accurately diagnose your cat’s condition, it helps to keep a detailed record of their health history as well as any changes in their regular routine such as the introduction of new food, kitty litter, or chemical products. Showing them video’s is helpful as well.


Treatments For Cat Asthma

Cat asthma is known as a chronic condition and there is no known cure, but the disease can be effectively treated3. There are two main methods of treating cat asthma:

  1. Steroids: Depending on your cat’s case, your vet may prescribe corticosteroids that can be inhaled or orally ingested to reduce inflammation in the lungs.
  2. Bronchodilators to help open the airways in the lungs. The medications are injected, inhaled, or taken orally and are usually very helpful in promoting your cat’s healthy breathing.

How To Reduce The Risk Of Your Cat Having An Asthma Attack

There are a number of things you can do to help reduce the severity of your cat’s asthma outside of medication.

To minimize your cat’s risk of having an asthma attack, you may want to consider removing common triggers from the household. Avoiding candles, smoking, and aerosol products can help keep these allergens out of the air that may be irritating your cat and triggering their asthma.

Other ways to prevent asthma attacks:

  • Healthy diet
  • Reduce stress
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Air purifiers
  • Humidifiers and dehumidifiers
  • Dust free cat litter

Final Notes

While cat asthma can put a real strain on your cat’s energy and health, cat asthma treatments usually work well and the condition is very treatable. To get the best treatment for your feline as soon as possible, it helps to know some of the symptoms and the difference between coughing up a hairball and a cat asthma attack. Once you’re sure your cat is experiencing asthma, consider eliminating possible air contaminants until you have a better idea of what triggers your cat’s asthma.

If you need help diagnosing your cat’s condition or feel that their health can be improved, Dutch can help match you with an experienced care provider. We offer comprehensive telemedicine for pets and can walk you through the process of figuring out what’s causing your cat’s ailment and findi the best treatment plan tailored for your feline’s health needs. Prescriptions are delivered straight to your door so you can get your cat the relief they need right away so you and your cat can breathe easy for years to come.

References

  1. “Feline Asthma: A Risky Business for Many Cats.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, 22 May 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-asthma-risky-business-many-cats.
  2. “Feline Asthma: What You Need to Know.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, 20 July 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-asthma-what-you-need-know.
  3. Deininger, Kari, and Leah Cohn. “Understanding Feline Asthma.” MU Veterinary Health Center, Missouri University, 21 Oct. 2016, http://vhc.missouri.edu/small-animal-hospital/small-animal-internal-medicine/diseases-and-treatments/understanding-feline-asthma/.