PET PEEVES: Asthma in cats
We’ve all heard of asthma in people, but few know that cats can get asthma, too. While feline asthma is a rare condition, for cat owners with asthmatic cats, it can be very scary. Often cats don’t show signs of the condition until they are about 3 to 5 years old. Symptoms include wheezing and coughing, open mouth breathing, and sometimes a rapid heart rate.
There are several other illnesses that share these same symptoms, making it harder to diagnose asthma. Heartworm disease in cats is one of those illnesses. Cats are not the natural host for heartworms, and they do not always test positive when they have the infection. Because the symptoms are so similar, they can be misdiagnosed as asthma.
In addition to heartworms, there are other parasites that can migrate through the body and settle in the lungs, causing an allergic reaction that mimics asthma. These include hookworms, roundworms, and lungworms.
For cats with asthma, the allergen is usually an inhaled particle such as pollen or mold. When first exposed, the body creates specific antibodies to fight the allergen. The next time it is exposed, the body reacts, causing a cascade of events resulting in lots of immune cells traveling to the lungs and airways.
This immune response triggers the irritation, swelling and reactive airway disease that defines asthma. The airways swell, restricting the space for air to flow, and mucus accumulates in the air passages. The cat has trouble breathing, fighting for every breath, wheezing and coughing. It can come on suddenly or it can be a gradual progression. A sudden attack is very scary for both the pet and the owner.
When a cat is presented to the veterinarian with a sudden severe breathing episode, radiographs are taken to determine the cause. The radiographic appearance of the lungs is very helpful in diagnosing asthma. To begin treatment, the veterinarian will generally get the cat in an oxygen cage and give the cat a steroid injection. As the steroids relieve the inflammation, the cat can be taken off oxygen.
Steroids are the treatment of choice for this condition. Injections or oral steroids are begun depending on the suddenness and severity of the condition. Many cats can be weaned over to an inhalant steroid such as fluticasone. If the cat can be managed with the inhalant steroid it reduces the exposure to steroid effects on the body.
If your cat is diagnosed with asthma, a great way to help reduce the asthmatic attacks is to get an air purifier for the house. Anything to reduce the exposure to allergens is helpful. If there is a smoker in the house, they should contemplate quitting. One may even want to experiment with a hypoallergenic cat food.
Severe asthmatic reactions are life threatening conditions that need immediate treatment, but many cats with asthma can have a good quality of life with monitoring and steroid therapy.
Have a question for Dr. Johns? E-mail her at JohnsDVM@aol.com. Write to Pet Peeves, P.O. Box 2949, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32549. Johns is a Niceville veterinarian.