In this video Dr. Karen Becker discusses feline asthma -- how to recognize it, treat it, and most importantly, how to eliminate potential asthma triggers in your kitty's environment.
By Dr. Becker
Feline asthma is also called bronchial asthma, allergic bronchitis, and chronic bronchitis.
It affects cats of all ages and all over the world. It's estimated about one percent of cats have asthma.
Asthma is a condition in which there is recurring constriction of the airways to the lungs.
Excessive amounts of mucus form in the airways, which causes them to become inflamed and sometimes ulcerated.
This situation leads to spasms of the muscles of the airways, which is what causes the constriction or narrowing.
How Can I Tell if My Cat Has Feline Asthma?
Kitties with asthma can't draw a deep breath.
Symptoms to watch for include a dry hack, which often sounds like gagging or retching.
Some cats are actually diagnosed with hairballs, when what they're really having are asthma attacks.
Wheezing, which can sound like a high-pitched sigh or a whistle, is another classic symptom. Labored breathing and exercise intolerance are also signs.
Even if your cat has a dry cough as her only symptom, it's not necessarily a measure of the severity of her asthma. Kitties can have really serious asthma but very few symptoms.
Some cats have no symptoms at all, except they are not able to breathe all of a sudden. They show no signs of a problem whatsoever, then suddenly simply cannot breathe. An acute asthma attack such as this can occur any time and obviously can be life-threatening for your cat.
Cats with serious asthma can also suffer obvious symptoms like panting or open-mouthed breathing. This situation can become life-threatening as well.
Brachycephalic cats – cats with pushed in faces like Persians and Himalayans, are especially susceptible to breathing problems, including asthma.
Sudden airway constriction can occur for no apparent reason. It can also result from an allergic reaction to inhaled triggers like grasses, pollens, ragweed, aerosol sprays, smoke, mildew, molds, dust mites, household chemicals – even kitty litter dust.
Symptoms of feline asthma are seen in other diseases as well, so it's really important you get an accurate diagnosis – which can sometimes be complicated. Cats are often misdiagnosed with asthma when they actually have a heart condition, so again, getting a correct diagnosis is crucial.
Sometimes it's obvious just by looking at a kitty that he's making a big effort to breathe. Often the breaths are rapid and shallow, and the abdomen is working really hard to push the air back out. You might also notice your cat breathing through an open mouth or panting. Needless to say, panting in kitties is not normal.
A chest x-ray should be taken if the cat can hold still without too much respiratory distress. An x-ray can help make a correct diagnosis, however, lung changes are not always obvious on x-rays, so sometimes further diagnostics are required.
A transtracheal wash is a procedure that retrieves cells from the lower airways and can be helpful in diagnosing asthma in cats with symptoms, but normal x-rays.
Another diagnostic test is the bronchoscopy, which involves passing a tiny camera down the bronchi so a specialist can visualize what is happening inside the lungs.
Other conditions that can mimic asthma symptoms are systemic allergies, including food allergies, and also heartworm infection. Lungworm is another common reason for asthma-like symptoms in cats.
Treating Feline Asthma
If a cat is in crisis, a vet or emergency animal clinic staff will give a small dose of epinephrine that can resolve an asthma attack in as little as 15 minutes. Typically, pure oxygen will be administered at the same time.
In some acute situations, a corticosteroid injection or inhalation treatment via nebulizer is required. Of course these drugs have side effects, especially the powerful ones like steroids. Once your kitty is stabilized and no longer critical, it's really important to work with your vet to get a definitive reason for why there was a crisis to begin with.
Feline asthma is a chronic, progressive disease that in most cases can be managed, but unfortunately, not cured. The goal of treatment is to prevent airway constriction, and reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
Things You Can Do to Help Your Asthmatic Kitty
There are actually lots of things you can do to help prevent and alleviate your cat's breathing difficulties.
- Don’t smoke. Give up smoking around your pet and don’t let others smoke around him. Second-hand smoke is a major trigger for sensitive cats.
- Give up using your fireplace. I know fireplaces are lovely for us humans during the cold winter months, but smoke of any kind is a trigger for kitty asthmatics. Fireplace smoke will settle in the low areas of your home, which is where your cat hangs out.
- Reduce or eliminate all household sprays. This would include natural grooming supplies, hairsprays and deodorants – anything that is aerosolized. Make sure kitty isn’t in the same room with anyone spraying anything from a bottle or can.
- Get rid of scented plug-ins, candles, incense, heated potpourri – anything that gives off an aroma. Anything that emits a strong scent can be a trigger for sensitive cats and people as well.
- Switch from chemical household cleaners to green cleaners.
- Gradually switch to an unscented, low-dust variety of cat litter. Mix the new litter with the litter your cat is used to, and gradually phase out the old stuff. Also, don’t use bleach to disinfect the box. Use dish soap or vinegar and rinse with warm water. That’s all you need.
- If you have pet pest problems, use an all-natural, safe pest repellent for flea and tick control.
- Invest in an ionic air purifier and replace your HVAC air filters regularly. I have found that replacing HVAC filters doesn’t do enough to purify the air for sensitive kitties. So in addition to replacing those filters regularly, I also recommend an ionic air purifier.
- If your cat is overweight, get her down to a healthy size. Obesity makes lungs work a lot harder. You have to diet fat cats very slowly.
- Make sure your cat’s daily routine stays very consistent. Kitties don’t do well with changes in their environment, and any type of stress can be a potential trigger for asthma. Try to keep the environment low-stress for your asthmatic cat.
- Feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. A species-appropriate diet means an anti-inflammatory diet for cats. Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways in the lungs, and pro-inflammatory foods like carbohydrates can worsen any inflammatory condition in the body. So I recommend not feeding your kitty any type of food containing corn, wheat, rice or millet. Avoid grains completely.
- Consider switching your cat to a raw food diet and a new or novel protein source. If your pet's asthma is a respiratory manifestation of a systemic allergic response, just switching away from the poultry or seafood, for example, that your cat may be addicted to can make a big difference. In as little as three months you can see a dramatic improvement in symptoms just by switching protein sources. So switch to, say, rabbit. Reducing pro-inflammatory grains can also help.
Natural Treatments for Feline Asthma
I recommend you talk to your holistic vet about natural remedies to control lung inflammation and promote respiratory health in your cat.
In my practice, I use naturally dried plant sterols and sterolins. I also use homeopathics and Chinese herbs to help manage many cases of feline asthma.
I also encourage you to consider acupuncture. Acupuncture has been proven to help reduce systemic inflammation in a cat's body. It can also help reduce the frequency and intensity of asthmatic episodes.
In traditional vet medicine, there are a wide variety of drugs used to treat feline asthma, including bronchodilators and specially designed steroid inhalers. Vets often start with one or several of those drugs to manage a severe case of feline asthma.
If your cat is taking drugs to control asthma, my advice is to work with your holistic vet to wean your cat down or off of some of these medications. It's possible to manage kitties with respiratory disease without using drugs, but unfortunately, in some situations cats with life-threatening asthma symptoms require at least some drugs to save their lives and reduce the intensity of attacks.
The good news?
If you're vigilant about eliminating potential asthma triggers for your pet, you're attending to your cat's environment (which includes her diet), and you're working in partnership with a holistic vet to explore safe, natural asthma remedies, you can often reduce both the frequency and severity of your cat's asthma symptoms, and also the amount of drugs your pet needs.