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Asthma in cats - is your cat at risk?

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Feline asthma is a medical condition affecting at least 1% of cats worldwide. Since this condition often goes undiagnosed and untreated, the real numbers are likely higher than that. Asthma in cats is also known as Feline Allergic Bronchitis. The condition causes inflammation in the small breathing passages in the lungs. It is caused by allergens in the environment. In severe cases, asthma can be life-threatening to your cat.

Feline Asthma Attack

An asthma attack in cats may at first glance look like vomiting. The cat will sit with shoulders hunched or lie down on her chest straining to breathe. Coughing or wheezing begins and lasts for several minutes. If the cat coughs repeatedly without vomiting, asthma may be the problem. After a coughing fit, check your cat's mouth to see if the gums are a healthy pink. One of the signs of an asthma attack is pale or blueish gums, a condition called cyanosis that indicates a lack of oxygen. See the attached video to observe what a feline asthma attack looks and sounds like.

Symptoms of Asthma

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Persistent cough
  • Squatting with shoulders hunched, neck extended while rapidly breathing or gasping for breath
  • Gagging up foamy mucus
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Blue lips and gums
  • Labored breathing after exercise
  • General weakness and lethargy

The Asthma Spectrum

Feline asthma varies greatly in how severely it affects your pet. Occasional asthma attacks are not a major concern. However, if asthma attacks are frequent and are beginning to affect your cat's quality of life, then a trip to the veterinarian is in order. Litah, a ten year old Siamese mix, has mild asthma. She has an asthma attack about 2-3 times a week. Otherwise she is active, playful and healthy. Alanya, a ten year old Bengal mix, has severe asthma. She wheezes and struggles to take each breath.

Treatment Options

With severe asthma, immediate veterinary care is needed. The most dangerous problem is the bronchial spasms and difficulty in breathing. Epinephrine is sometimes used as an emergency treatment for an asthmatic cat in distress. Bronchodilator medications such as cortisone are also effective in resolving the crisis. Cough suppressants and antihistamines should be avoided as they inhibit the cat's ability to clear the secretions that are causing breathing difficulty. For patients in crisis, sedation or supplemental oxygen may be necessary to stabilize the cat.

Maintenance Medications

Feline asthma is a considered a chronic condition that may grow worse over time without treatment. Frequent asthma attacks can be controlled with regular use of a corticosteroid medication. Since steroids can be addicting, the recommended treatment plan is one dose of liquid oral steroid medication every other day, based on your pet's body weight. In some cases, steroids can be tapered off gradually without worsening the cat's condition. However, if relapses occur, the cat may need to take steroid medication for the rest of its life.

Much like medications for humans, special feline-specific inhalers are now used to treat feline asthma. Bronchodilators like Albuterol and steroid medications like fluticasone can be prescribed in an inhaler format. A special breathing mask is included for your cat. One advantage of inhalers is that they take effect more quickly than orally administered medications. Fewer side effects are also reported when using the inhaler mask as opposed to oral medication.

Prevention of Feline Asthma

Since feline asthma is primarily a reaction to allergens in the environment, maintaining a clean house with few allergens is helpful. Dust and vacuum regularly to reduce the amount of dust and dirt on furniture and in carpets. Use a cat litter that is very low in dust so your cat doesn't have to inhale dust while using the litter box. A HEPA filter on your air conditioner also helps reduce allergens in your home. Keeping your cat indoors greatly reduces the exposure to pollen and other allergens outside.

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