Yes, they can – “Feline Asthma” is a very real condition. It is sometimes called “Chronic Bronchitis” – although, technically, these are two different conditions. However, at the moment, we use the two terms interchangeably, because they usually seem to occur together in cats (unlike in humans, who usually have one or the other). Perhaps a better term would be “allergic bronchitis”, but it hasn’t really caught on yet!
What causes it?
Well, like human asthma, it is thought to be an allergic reaction. Essentially, small particles like pollen, dust, cigarette smoke or exhaust fumes are inhaled all the time; in a normal, healthy cat, they are breathed or coughed out, and that’s the end of it. In an asthmatic cat, the lung tissues become inflamed and thickened and produce more mucus (like chronic bronchitis in humans). Simultaneously, the muscles of the small airways in the lungs contract, narrowing themselves and making it more difficult for air to get in, or out, of the lung (like human asthma).
Exactly what the triggers are probably varies from cat to cat, depending on exactly what they’re allergic to; however, high levels of exhaust fumes or cigarette smoke (yes, cats do suffer from passive smoking!) are thought to be a risk factor.
What cats can get it?
Any cat may suffer from feline asthma; however, adults between the ages of 2 and 8 years are most likely to be diagnosed. Also, Siamese cats seem to be predisposed to the condition; and some (but not all) studies suggest females may be at a slightly higher risk than males.
So, what are the symptoms?
The most common signs of feline asthma are coughing (80% of affected cats), sneezing (60%) and fast, laboured or difficulty breathing (40%) – most affected cats also wheeze (although you may not hear it without a stethoscope!).
The clearest sign of a cat having trouble catching their breath is that they breathe through their mouths – open-mouth breathing or panting in cats is always a veterinary emergency.
The symptoms are often episodic, in that a cat appears OK most of the time, but will occasionally have an “attack” – rather like an asthma attack in humans; and like in people, if not rapidly treated it can be fatal.
How do you know whether it’s asthma or something else?
There are a lot of different tests available – because you’re right, there are several other conditions that can present in the same way, such as pneumonia, heart disease, having something stuck in the airways, or lung cancer.
The most common diagnostic tests are:
- Blood samples, to rule out infection and other disease conditions.
- Chest X-rays, to look for tumours, signs of pneumonia or fluid in the lungs.
- Heart scans, to rule out heart disease.
- Bronchoscopy – looking inside the lungs with a camera – this can also be used to collect samples of fluid from inside the airways to confirm the presence of allergic disease (sometimes called “bronchial wash” or “bronchoalveolar lavage”).
So, can anything be done about it?
Yes, fortunately there are a range of treatments. Remember though, in an emergency, get your cat to us as soon as possible. We can administer oxygen and medications to open up the airways. In the longer term, there are two approaches to treatment, and both must be used together for the best results.
To reduce the severity of the symptoms:
Weight loss – obese cats are more likely to struggle to breathe if affected.
Allergen avoidance – if you can work out what your cat’s triggers are, you can try to avoid them.
Management alone will not usually be sufficient. The medicines commonly used include:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs – usually steroids, given as tablets, long-acting injections or in an inhaler. These act to reduce the “strength” and severity of the allergic response, but do have a range of possible side effects.
- Bronchodilators – these are drugs that open up the airways, allowing better airflow through the cat’s lungs.There are some tablets, but these are usually given as inhalers.
Hang on, how do you get a cat to use an inhaler?
Carefully! Most cats, obviously, cannot use an inhaler like we would. However, there are a range of “spacer chambers” available that mix air and the medication, so the cat just has to breathe normally (like the Aerokat). It may take a few days or weeks for the cat to get used to it, but most patients adjust quite happily to them.
Is there a cure?
Sadly, no. Feline Asthma is a life-long condition that requires life-long care and medication. It can, however, be effectively managed with modern medication and the proper lifestyle changes.