Though we generally think of cats as fairly independent, low-maintenance pets, they're just as capable of coming down with a chronic disease as any mammal. In fact, there are certain conditions that they share with humans, such as asthma. And although there's still a lot that researchers have to learn about feline asthma, they believe it's likely set off by allergens in the same way that the disease is triggered in humans, says Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM, a veterinarian in Seattle, Wash. and veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance.
The good news is that with the right treatment, cat asthma doesn't have to cause your feline friend undue stress.
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Can Cats Have Asthma?
Yes, in fact, research finds up to five percent of cats are affected by feline asthma. Because they are mammals, cats and humans share many of the same disease processes, points out Johnson. "Humans get allergy-induced asthma," she explains. "And we think that for cats, it's also an allergy-induced process wherein there are inhaled allergens that incite an immune response."
Allergens that affect cats and lead to asthma are based on where you live but could include any of the following:
Dust and dust mites
Dander of other animals
Smoke from fireplaces and candles
Dust from clay litter
The response leads to the production of mucus in the airways, swelling, and inflammation. In turn, muscles in that area will start to spasm, which constricts the airways. "What happens is a cat will breathe in," explains Johnson. "Then, the air gets trapped in those lower airways, and they can't breathe out. They try, but then wheeze."
Cat Asthma Symptoms
Johnson notes that if a cat is suffering from asthma, you might notice any of the following signs:
A chronic cough
Labored breathing in which they push their bellies out
Open mouth breathing with panting
Over time, the anatomy of a cat's airways might actually change, for the worse. This is called airway remodeling, which can lead to a chronic cough, explains Johnson. And just like with any chronic illness, pets might lose weight or have changes to their coat.
If your cat is exhibiting any of these symptoms acutely or on an ongoing basis, it's best to see your vet or call your local animal hospital to let them know you're coming for an emergency visit, advises Johnson.
In order to diagnose asthma, vets will give cats blood tests or intradermal skin tests to see what they're allergic to in order to address the whole picture in a targeted way.
Cat Asthma Treatment and Home Remedies to Make Your Kitty Feel Better
If you head into the animal hospital due to an emergency situation during which your cat can't breathe, the vet will initially sedate them and get them oxygen. "It can be a kennel with oxygen supplementation or flow by oxygen," explains Johnson.
If health care providers confirm (usually by X-ray) that asthma is the culprit, they will provide the cat with a bronchodilator medicine—albuterol sulfate, also known as salbutamol (brand names: Proventil and Ventolin)—to address bronchoconstriction, or constriction of the smooth muscles of the bronchus, caused by an asthma attack. But that's not the mainstay of asthma, says Johnson. It's just the first step.
"From there, we need to get rid of the inflammation, so we use steroids like prednisone," she notes. Your options will generally include the steroid in either a pill form or an inhaler, like the AeroKat, for which there's a spacer made just for cats that fits over their mouths.
How frequently you'll treat your cat with steroidal therapy depends on your cat's asthma and vet's recommendations.
At the same time, your vet might also recommend allergy shots or sublingual therapy, in which allergens are compounded into a formula that goes underneath the tongue. "It's given at micro doses and slowly increased over time," explains Johnson.
In addition to the standard treatment with steroids, Johnson recommends the following lifestyle measures:
Bolster your cat's well-being by eliminating any allergens that appear to be setting off the condition.
Change your household air filter. You might put it near where your cat sleeps.
To minimize dust mites, regularly wash and dry their bedding on a hot cycle.
Don't smoke or vape in the house.
What to Do If Your Cat Has an Asthma Attack
If your cat is having an asthma attack, they'll crouch down toward the ground and jut their head and neck out as they wheeze or cough. "If you are seeing open mouth breathing, the abdominal press, or any increase in respiratory rate, that would be a sign that you should go to the vet," says Johnson.
Do your best to keep your cat calm, then get them in a carrier and into the car. "Turn the air conditioning on if it's hot, get on the phone with your emergency room, and tell them you're coming," says Johnson. "And hopefully they'll get an oxygen cage ready for you. And you'll be able to elicit treatment right away."
Ultimately, if you're contending with cat asthma, Johnson emphasizes the importance of consulting with your primary care veterinarian or specialist handling the case to get specific instructions regarding your pet. After all, as every pet parent knows, every kitty is unique and will require individualized care.