Asthma, a disease of the lungs’ lower airways caused by allergic reactions, is more common in cats than many pet owners realize. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, between 1 and 5 percent of cats experience feline asthma. Recognizing the condition can be tricky in mild cases. Proper diagnosis and early treatment can lessen the severity of the condition and improve an affected cat’s life.
Cat asthma is a disease of the lungs triggered by an allergic reaction, which in turn causes an immune response that prevents normal airflow. When the affected cat is exposed to the allergen, the immune response leads to inflammation, causing an asthma attack. The attack can include coughing, wheezing, and vomiting.
Feline asthma is a progressive disease that eventually causes structural changes to the airways and creates more severe symptoms if left untreated.
Some cats are more prone to developing asthma than others, but any cat at any stage of life can develop the condition. It is unknown if genetics is a risk factor. Environmental exposure to common household allergens like dust mites and pollen may increase some cats’ chances of developing asthma. More studies are needed to identify specific risk factors.
Early signs of mild cat asthma are easy to miss. A mild attack can resemble coughing up a hairball: your pet may crouch down and extend their head and neck forward while coughing. Mild attacks happen only occasionally, and the cat acts normal immediately after the episode.
As feline asthma progresses, rapid breathing and wheezing may occur during an attack. Attacks occur more frequently, and the cat needs time to recover from each episode. If the cat is still undiagnosed at this time, seek veterinary care before the disease progresses to more severe attacks.
Diagnosing feline asthma involves a series of tests. Based on the consultation and a physical exam, the veterinarian will order tests to rule out other conditions that resemble cat asthma. These tests typically include imaging scans and comprehensive bloodwork to get a complete picture of a cat’s health. These tests will help the veterinarian determine the right diagnosis and lead to the right course of treatment.
Feline asthma treatment will be based on the severity of the cat’s condition. A cat in respiratory distress may need to be hospitalized. Cats well enough to go home will be given an asthma management plan that involves medication to reduce inflammation, open the airways, and encourage breathing.
The veterinarian may prescribe oral steroids and a steroid inhaler to reduce inflammation. These drugs control the cat’s inflammatory response to the allergen to prevent and manage symptoms. The doctor may also recommend a bronchodilator to reduce airway constriction for emergency use.
Holistic treatments can be useful additions to an asthma management plan, if they are approved by your veterinarian. Weight management, a healthy diet, certain supplements, and limiting common environmental allergens are some natural approaches to asthma treatment. Pet owners should consult with a veterinarian to figure out the treatment options that work best for their pet.
Since cat asthma is caused by an allergic reaction, limiting exposure to environmental allergens can help reduce symptoms. The veterinarian can run allergy tests to help identify things that a cat is allergic to. Pet owners may also start to recognize that exposure to certain things causes an attack. Even if it is hard to identify the allergen causing the asthma symptoms, you can still take steps to make your home safe and comfortable for a cat with asthma.
When a cat develops asthma, deep clean the house and remove any suspected allergens. Vacuuming with a HEPA filter can eliminate most dust, mold, pollen, and bacteria in treated areas, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center recommends preventing the cat’s exposure to airborne chemicals like household cleaners, perfumes, and smoke to create a safer environment.
If you are exposed to pollen or any other common allergen, change clothes before spending time with your cat. Keep your cat’s area of the house as clean and dust-free as possible.
Extra care should be taken for cats with severe cases of asthma. Home supports may be needed in addition to following the veterinarian’s asthma management plan. In some cases, a veterinarian may prescribe a bronchodilator or oxygen therapy for emergencies. Always take a cat in respiratory distress to the clinic. Only use home supports as directed by the vet for your cat’s specific needs.
A feline asthma diagnosis doesn’t have to lessen your cat’s quality of life. With proper management, pets with mild and moderate cases may live relatively normal lives with fewer attacks. Pet owners with cats affected by severe asthma may have to modify their lifestyles to ensure their pets stay healthy and safe. Regular veterinary care and an effective management plan can help cats with asthma enjoy a long, happy life with their families.
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