Recognizing the Signs of Asthma in Cats

Asthma is a relatively common respiratory disease that affects cats of all ages. It causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for cats to breathe. As a cat owner, it is important to recognize the signs of feline asthma early, so you can get your cat the treatment they need. This complete guide covers everything you need to know about recognizing asthma in cats.

What is Feline Asthma?

Feline asthma, also known as bronchoconstrictive disease, is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. The airways become extra sensitive to irritants and allergens, causing them to swell, produce mucus, and spasm. This narrows the airways and obstructs breathing.

Asthma attacks or flare-ups cause severe breathing difficulty and coughing. Without treatment, the airway obstruction can become life-threatening. Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be controlled with proper care and medication.

What Causes Asthma in Cats?

The exact causes of feline asthma are not fully understood. However, some common triggers and risk factors include:

  • Allergies – Inhaled allergens like pollen, dust mites, and mold spores can trigger asthma flare-ups. Cats with other allergic diseases like rhinitis are at higher risk.
  • Air Pollution – Cigarette smoke, chemical cleaners, scented candles, and air fresheners contain irritants that can inflame airways.
  • Respiratory Infections – Bacterial and viral infections often exacerbate asthma.
  • Obesity – Excess weight puts pressure on the lungs and airways.
  • Stress – Stress hormones may worsen asthma.
  • Genetics – Purebred cats may inherit a tendency for asthma. Siamese and Himalayans are more prone.
  • Heartworm Disease – Worms in the heart and lungs obstruct airflow.
  • Anatomical Abnormalities – Cleft palate, flattening of the nose, or a narrow trachea can contribute to asthma.

What are the Signs of Asthma in Cats?

Asthma symptoms in cats tend to be episodic. They may flare up suddenly and then improve again. Pay attention for these common signs of feline asthma:

1. Coughing and Wheezing

The most obvious sign of asthma is a dry, hacking cough. You may also hear wheezing noises as your cat struggles to breathe. Coughing often gets worse at night or early morning when lying down. The cough may sound tight like a hairball cough. Sometimes cats cough up clear mucus.

2. Labored or Open-Mouth Breathing

Cats use extra effort to take breaths. They may breathe with an open mouth and extend their head and neck to maximize airflow. You may see the stomach or sides moving exaggeratedly as they struggle to inhale. Their breathing may become shallow and rapid.

3. Reduced Activity and Exercise Intolerance

When cats experience breathing difficulty, they tend to reduce their activity to a minimum. They may stop running and playing. Climbing stairs leaves them winded. Even grooming may be exhaustive. Reluctance to move around is a subtle asthma sign.

4. Hiding and Changed Behavior

When cats feel unwell, they tend to hide away in safe spots. Their posture may be hunched with the neck extended. Asthmatic cats also tend to change behavior and become quieter and less eager to interact. Lethargy, irritability, and loss of appetite can occur.

5. Blue Lips or Gums

In severe cases, a lack of oxygen causes bluish discoloration of the gums and tongue. The paw pads may also appear blue. This cyanosis indicates an emergency situation. Immediate veterinary assistance is needed.

6. Breathing with Shoulders and Open Mouth

When cats are struggling to breathe, you may notice exaggerated movements in their shoulders as they use their additional muscles. Breathing with an open mouth with the elbows pointing outward is another sign of labored breathing and distress.

7. No Interest in Playing

Healthy cats are often eager to play, explore, interact, and be petted. When they feel unwell, these normal interests diminish. Lying still in one place and showing no enthusiasm for play is an important clue.

How is Asthma Diagnosed in Cats?

If your cat shows any signs of breathing trouble or persistent coughing, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Be prepared to describe all the symptoms you have observed. To confirm asthma, the vet will perform:

  • Physical exam – Listening to the chest with a stethoscope can detect wheezing. The vet checks for a heart murmur, enlarged lymph nodes, or signs of allergies.
  • Medical history – Information about the episodes, any known allergies, and response to medication helps with diagnosis.
  • Diagnostic imaging – X-rays or CT scans of the chest allow evaluation of the lungs, airways, and heart. Changes typical of asthma may be visible.
  • Heartworm test – A blood test helps rule out heartworm disease which could mimic asthma.
  • Fecal exam – Stool samples are checked for lungworm larvae which can cause similar symptoms.
  • Bloodwork – A complete blood count (CBC) helps assess the presence of infection or inflammation.
  • Bronchoscopy – A tiny camera inserted into the airways lets the vet examine the source of obstruction visually. Biopsies or lavage may be taken.
  • Peak flow test – This measures how well air moves in and out of the lungs. Reduced flow points to asthma.
  • Challenge testing – Exposing your cat to suspected allergens under medical supervision can help confirm triggers.

Tips for Managing Asthma in Cats

While asthma cannot be cured, it can be well-controlled with attentive care at home and medications prescribed by your vet. Here are some tips for managing feline asthma:

Keep a Consistent Routine

Try to keep your cat’s schedule, feeding times, play times, litter cleaning, and sleep routine consistent to avoid emotional stress. Maintain regular vet visits for check-ups. Monitor their breathing each day.

Avoid Triggers and Irritants

Determine what seems to worsen your cat’s asthma and remove those triggers from the home. This may include scented candles, chemical cleaners, cigarette smoke, moldy basements, pollen sources, or certain fragrances. Use unscented products as much as possible.

Invest in an Air Purifier

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can remove dust, pet dander, and other allergens from the air. Place air purifiers in your cat’s favorite rooms and where they sleep. Vacuum and dust regularly with a HEPA filter vacuum.

Give Prescribed Medications

Work closely with your vet to find the right medications to control inflammation and open the airways during an attack. Common meds include oral or inhaled steroids, bronchodilators, antibiotics, and antihistamines.

Use a Spacer with Inhaled Meds

Spacers optimize delivery of inhaled meds to cats’ lungs. The plastic chamber traps the medication for easy inhalation. Ask your vet to demonstrate proper technique.

Consider Immunotherapy

Allergen-specific immunotherapy involves injecting small amounts of triggers like pollen to desensitize your cat over time. It aims to decrease airway inflammation long-term.

Maintain Ideal Body Weight

Help your cat maintain lean body mass by measuring food portions and encouraging activity each day. Excess weight puts strain on the lungs and heart.

Invest in a Nebulizer

A nebulizer delivers asthma medications in mist form for cats to inhale. This opens the airways directly. Work with your vet to obtain the machine and proper medications. Use it at home during flare-ups.

Stay Calm During Attacks

Cats sense anxiety. Remaining calm, turning off loud devices, and speaking in soothing tones helps minimize stress. Keep small doses of quick-relief meds handy to use at the first signs of wheezing or coughing.

Consider a Temperate Climate

Warm, humid environments can worsen asthma. If your cat struggles in spring and summer, consult your vet about relocating to a cooler, drier climate. Make sure they stay well-hydrated year-round.

When to Seek Emergency Care

Most asthma attacks resolve within a few hours with proper care at home. However, immediate medical attention is crucial if:

  • Breathing struggles are not improving with quick-relief medication
  • Your cat’s gums or tongue appear blue
  • There are extended pauses between breaths
  • Your cat collapses or seems near respiratory arrest

Rapid vet care with oxygen therapy and injectable steroids may be required to open the airways in life-threatening cases. Never hesitate to seek emergency help, even in the middle of the night, if your cat is in obvious distress. Timely assistance can save their life.

The Takeaway: Recognize Asthma Signs Early On

Asthma can be a life-long condition in cats. But with attentive care, avoidance of triggers, and adherence to prescribed medications, attacks can often be well-controlled at home. As a cat parent, make sure you know the subtle signs of feline asthma. Look for coughing, wheezing, open-mouth breathing, lethargy, hiding behaviors, and exercise intolerance. Work closely with your vet to diagnose the problem and find an effective treatment plan. With proper management, cats with asthma can enjoy a good quality of life for years to come.