Explaining asthma in cats, and how to treat it

Being a pet owner isn’t always the easiest task, especially when our furbabies are not well. Since they cannot tell us what is wrong, we need to look at the symptoms and record them so that we can share them with the vet. In this article, we look at asthma in cats.

Feline asthma or feline allergic asthma is a condition where the immune cells in a cat’s body ‘overreact’ to a specific allergen, leading to swelling and tightening of the airways. These allergens might be in- or outside the house, and can be difficult or even impossible to identify.

What are the symptoms of feline asthma?

Feline asthma can range from a severe, life-threatening episode to a milder, long-term condition that comes and goes. Cats with asthma are typically young or middle-aged when it starts, and may be male or female. Although all breeds can be affected, it is thought that Siamese cats may be more susceptible.

Owners of affected cats might notice their cat coughing (which can be misinterpreted as an attempt to vomit up a hairball), wheezing, breathing more rapidly, or even struggling to breath. This condition might be seasonal or year-round, depending on the allergen involved.

How common is this disease?

Although awareness is important, most cat owners needn’t have sleepless nights about feline asthma. Some experts estimate that feline asthma affects approximately 1-5% of the feline population. Experts around the world are not always in agreement about what defines asthma in cats, making it difficult to truly know how many cats are affected.

 Can feline asthma be prevented?

Feline asthma is an allergic disease, making it difficult to prevent. Just like for humans with allergies, it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to determine the cause of the allergy in a cat. Once the condition has been diagnosed, you can discuss specific tests with your vet to help identify what is causing the problem, although this is not always practical. If known, it is advisable to try to remove the allergen causing the clinical signs. Owners should also minimise exposure to airborne irritants like dust, smoke or aerosols. It might also help to get air filters for cats spending a considerable amount of time indoors.

 How can it be treated?

If your cat is having an asthma episode, it is important to get to a veterinarian immediately. Try to do this as calmly as possible, while also handling your cat as little as possible. Cats who are stressed will struggle to breath even more. Your veterinarian will act quickly by providing oxygen and medication to open the airways. Your vet will likely take radiographs of the chest and airways to help confirm the diagnosis of feline asthma.

Ongoing treatment

Long-term therapy consists of minimising exposure to allergens and irritants, as well giving medication at home to decrease swelling and tightening of the airways. Just like a person with asthma might need an inhaler, there are also special masks for cats to enable them to inhale their medication. Treatment might also include oral medication.

Owners will need to commit to managing this disease in their cats, which will include daily medication, frequent veterinary visits, as well as identifying signs of breathing difficulties in an emergency and knowing how to respond.

 

Feline asthma, although relatively uncommon, can be life-threatening to your cat. Since this is a long-term condition, owners need to be informed about the effect the management of this disease can have on their pet’s quality of life. Prognosis can range from grave to good, depending on the cat’s response to the treatment. If you recognise any of the above symptoms in your cat, please speak to your veterinarian about the possibility of feline asthma or related diseases.

By Dr Johan Jordaan, veterinarian

 

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