What is feline asthma?
Feline asthma is a restrictive airway disease, that causes constriction/narrowing within the airways in the lungs and can lead to respiratory complications.
3 features define asthma: 1) airway inflammation 2) airway hyperresponsiveness 3) airflow limitation
When the asthma is triggered in cats excess mucus within the airways forms, then the airways become inflamed which then causes the muscles within the airways to spasm and ultimately constrict.
What causes asthma?
Like in humans, Feline Asthma is typically caused by an allergic reaction to inhaled environmental allergens. Cats can have asthma at a young age and grown out of it or can have no signs of asthma as a younger cat and can develop signs as they get older. There is likely an underlying genetic component.
What are the clinical signs of Feline Asthma?
Repeated coughing (dry, non-productive)
Exercise intolerance (inactivity/lethargy/loss of appetite combined with respiratory signs)
Difficulty breathing (open mouthed panting, flared nostrils, breathing with abdominal component, and/or extending neck to breath)
Is this an emergency for my cat?
Most of the time feline asthma presents as a chronic dry cough and/or intermittent wheezing, which are not emergencies unless respiratory distress is appreciated. (ie each breath appears to be taking substantial effort)
Feline asthma becomes an emergency when at any point a cat develops difficulty breathing (open mouthed panting, flared nostrils, breathing with abdominal component, and/or extending neck to breath).
Sudden asthma attacks can happen at any time and on occasion can be life-threatening. Airway constriction secondary to asthma can happen spontaneously or as a symptom of an allergic reaction.
How is asthma diagnosed?
Asthma is diagnosed by your veterinarian through a combination of taking a relevant history, observing clinical signs and potentially thoracic radiographs (x-rays). Radiographs may be necessary to determine feline asthma v. other intrathoracic diseases like pneumonia or cardiac disease.
What are the signs of asthma on radiographs? A bronchiolar pattern (i.e., lung donuts) which is indicative of inflammation and mucus build up within the airways and within the lungs (bronchioles). Lungs may also appear over-inflated with flattened diaphragm OR deflated (atelectasis)
What are the treatment options?
When it comes to treatment, relieving and preventing airway constriction is the goal. Here is how we treat feline asthma:
Oral steroids (prednisolone) OR inhaled steroid (Flovent; fluticasone) via a cat inhaler are the gold standards for treatment. With inhaled steroids, administration requires a special fitting on the inhaler known as an “Aerokat Chamber”. This is an attachment to the inhaler which fits over a cat's face in order to deliver the inhaled medication. The good thing with inhaled steroids is that you do not get the same long term side effects as oral steroids because inhaled steroids are not absorbed systemically. The down side is some cats have personalities that make it impossible to use an inhaler.
This is an inhaled bronchodilator medication to help open up the airways within the lungs (bronchioles). It is a temporary solution and is not used for maintenance therapy. However, it is very useful at combating an "asthmatic attack" at home.
Decreasing Asthma Triggers aka "Indoor Cat for Life"
Start by decreasing the risk for environmental irritants that could trigger the asthma. This can be done by keeping you cat indoors and/or removing environmental irritants at home (ie using a HEPA air filter at home or using "minimal dust" cat litter). Minimizing fragrances in the air like potpourri, smoke, and aerosolized sprays can also be beneficial.
Cats sometimes show stress in very subtle ways. Even mild changes in the home can lead to "anxiety". Anxious cats may pant or start urinating inappropriately in the home. Try keeping the home environment "as stable as possible" for your asthmatic cat to decrease the potential for "stress".
What is the prognosis associated with Feline Asthma?
Much like with humans, Feline asthma is a lifelong disease that can be managed effectively. With life long treatment, the prognosis is great. However, there are potential complications with long term, untreated asthma (lung scarring, etc) so if you suspect feline asthma in your cat, please have a discussion with your veterinarian.