Asthma is not as common in pets as it is in people, but of all companion animals, cats are the most likely to suffer from the disorder. Affected animals often appear relatively normal for long periods of time, but many different triggers can cause asthma to flare up. Allergies or inhaled irritants like perfume or cigarette smoke are frequently to blame for producing the inflammation and airway narrowing that is to blame for an individual's symptoms.
Clinical signs can range from mild and short-lived episodes of low activity, wheezing and coughing to extended periods of time where the cat is frantically gasping for air. Healthy cats breathe slowly and seemingly without effort, while asthmatics may have to push hard with both their chest and abdominal muscles and hold their mouths open to get enough air. Chest x-rays, blood work and fecal exams are often necessary to differentiate asthma from other disorders, such as heart disease, pneumonia or traumatic injuries that can make it difficult for cats to breathe. A veterinarian may also have to obtain a sample of airway mucus in order to definitively diagnose asthma.
Medications that reduce inflammation (e.g., corticosteroids) and dilate airways are the mainstays of asthma treatment. Cats in the midst of a severe attack may require oxygen therapy. Some asthma medications can be inhaled through a facemask while others are given orally or by injection. Asthma cannot be cured, but in most cases veterinarians can come up with effective treatment protocols that lessen the severity and frequency of attacks so that affected cats can live relatively uneventful lives.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008