clearing the air on feline asthma

clearing the air on feline asthma
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Oct 14 2011

If your feline friend is huffing and puffing around the house, there’s a possibility she may be doing more than her best impression of the big bad wolf (unless you’re playing the role of Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween). Cats who exhibit difficulty breathing may be suffering from inflammatory airway disease, otherwise known as feline asthma.

Why do cats get feline asthma?

Cat asthma is due to chronic airway inflammation. Excess mucus production combined with airway constriction lead to compromised respiratory function. Often these cats cannot fully expand their lungs, leading to exercise intolerance, coughing and wheezing.

Typically, cats with asthma have coughing spells that come and go from day to day. Pet parents often mistake their cat’s coughing spells for hacking up a hairball because the actions look similar, but if no hairball is produced, it’s time to schedule an appointment with the vet.

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Diagnosing feline asthma can prove challenging for your veterinarian. Because the symptoms (such as coughing and wheezing) can come and go, the diagnosis often has to be made based on response to therapy (meaning that if asthma treatment is started and the coughing improves, it was likely asthma).

In addition to listening closely to your cat’s lungs, your veterinarian will likely want to radiograph (or X-ray) the chest to look for tell-tale signs of asthma. Unfortunately, some cats with airway disease will have normal radiographs.

If this is the case with your pet, your veterinarian may want to sedate your kitty to perform further diagnostics. Sampling fluid directly from the airways helps provide your vet clues to whether inflammatory airway disease is present. While additional diagnostics are beneficial, they can become expense, so protecting your kitty with a cat insurance plan can help make sure she gets the care she deserves.


As I said before, your veterinarian may just treat your kitty’s symptoms to see how she responds. The mainstay of therapy for asthma is reducing the inflammation that causes airway constriction. Steroids are great at reducing inflammation, and they come in a variety of preparations (don’t worry – they won’t turn kitty into The Hulk). The long-term use of steroids can come with potential side effects, such as diabetes, but luckily cats are somewhat more resistant to these side effects than their canine cousins.

Oftentimes, the lowest dose of steroid that can control symptoms is advised. Oral and injectable options exist, but perhaps the best (and safest) options are in the inhaled category. Just as humans use inhalers to control their symptoms, cats can use an inhaler mask to get the medication right to the source. Of course, this takes a little bit of training on the part of both kitty and parent, but it is well worth it.

Feline asthma can manifest itself with intermittent, chronic coughing, but acute asthma attacks can occur and should be considered life threatening. If you suspect your coughing kitty may be at risk, don’t hesitate to visit the vet. Chronic airway disease is likely to worsen over time, making symptoms harder to control.

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