Feline asthma - Signs, symptoms and treatment
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Feline asthma - Signs, symptoms and treatment

Cats
Health & Safety

Asthma is often thought of as being a very human condition, but a wide range of other animals- including cats- can suffer from asthma as well. Around 1% of cats are suspected to suffer from asthma, although asthma often goes undiagnosed for many years as it is sometimes very mild, or confused with other conditions such as hairballs or coughs and colds.Often, cat owners are unaware of feline asthma and the signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for- and what to do if they suspect that their cat is living with the condition. Whether you are concerned about your own cat, or simply wish to be aware of the signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for, this article can help to guide you on your way with some basic information.

What is asthma?

The condition known as asthma in both humans and animals is thought to be caused by a combination of both genetic/hereditary factors, and external environmental triggers. It is classed as a chronic condition, meaning that it is persistent and generally not something that can be fully cured. Asthma causes inflammation of the airways of the lungs, which means that your cat may find it hard to breathe in deeply, or get enough oxygen into their lungs. This can cause shortness of breath, fast, shallow breathing and difficulty in inhaling and exhaling enough air. While low-level asthma may not have a marked effect on your cat’s day-to-day health and wellbeing, more severe cases can cause significant respiratory distress, thickening of the airways in the lungs, and the progressive development of additional symptoms. Cats can also suffer from full-blown asthma attacks in the same way that people can, when they simply cannot get enough air into their lungs to breathe freely and can become extremely distressed trying to breathe- an event that can be potentially life-threatening.

The symptoms of feline asthma

Low level asthma is often mistaken for a range of other short-term or minor conditions, such as simple coughs and colds or hairballs. The symptoms to be on the lookout for in the case of relatively low level asthma or a slowly developing condition include:

  • A persistent light and non-productive cough several times a day that does not go away on its own.
  • A breathing rate of above 40 breaths per minute.
  • Abdominal breathing- where your cat’s abdomen appears to rise and fall markedly upon inhalation and exhalation.
  • Wheezing, rattling or crackling noises when breathing or in the area of the lungs and chest cavity.
  • Snoring or noisy breathing when asleep.

In the case of a full-blown asthma attack or in more severe cases, any of these additional symptoms may also be present:

  • Open-mouthed breathing and gulping air.
  • Nostrils visibly flaring when breathing.
  • A constant cough that does not ease up and causes distress to your cat, possibly producing mucus or foam but not a hairball.
  • A hunched, stiff posture with significant effort required to breathe in.
  • The neck extended upwards while gasping for air.

Any of the symptoms in the above list are serious, acute and potentially life-threatening, and require an emergency visit to the vet.

Definitively diagnosing asthma

Your vet will be able to give you a definitive diagnosis of feline asthma after ruling out a range of other potential conditions and contra-indications including heart problems, viral infections, persistent hairballs, lungworms and various other illnesses.Chest x-rays, physical examination and various other methods will be used to get a full picture of your cat’s lungs and overall condition, plus the extent to which any lung damage or narrowing of the airways is present.

What type of cats can get asthma?

Any type of cats can develop asthma, and asthma may present symptoms at any age from kitten-hood right through into old age, although most cases usually become apparent between the ages of two and eight years old. Both male and female cats can have asthma, although the condition is slightly more prevalent in female cats than male. Brachycephalic cats such as Persians and other breeds with short, squashed-looking faces are potentially more susceptible to asthma than other types of cats, with the notable exception of the Maine Coon cat, which seems to have a distinct genetic predisposition to the condition.

Treating and managing asthma

Once your vet definitively diagnoses asthma in your cat, it is important to begin a course of treatment and management as soon as possible. Asthma cannot be cured, and is a lifelong condition that will require constant monitoring and management, but correctly treated, asthma should not affect your cat’s longevity or quality of life.Upon initial diagnosis of asthma, your vet may well administer a course of antibiotics to treat any incidental infection that could be exacerbating the condition, and treat for lungworms, which can make the condition worse. Normal cat wormers such as Drontal and Milbemax treat gastro-intestinal worms only, and so will not treat lungworms.The long term treatment and management of feline asthma is generally undertaken in one of two ways- regular administration of a steroidal medication that helps to expand the airways and so ease breathing, or regular direct administration of a vaso-dilator similar to the asthma pumps used for people directly into your cat’s airways.While giving your cat a steroid pill every day may seem like the path of least resistance in terms of how best to treat the condition, long term use of steroids in cats can potentially lead to a range of secondary conditions and problems. Kidney conditions, diabetes and a range of other issues may develop as the result of steroid use in the long term, so steroidal treatment should be considered as the second best option compared to a directly inhaled vaso-dilator.Specially designed asthma pump masks for cats are the preferable treatment method, providing that you can train your cat to accept the mask! The mask must be positioned over the muzzle and held in place for around ten seconds, during which time the asthma pump itself is activated and your cat inhales the vaso-dilators directly.How often you need to treat your cat via either method depends greatly on the progression of your cat’s asthma and how badly it is affecting them, and again, your vet can advise you on this for your own particular case.Cat asthma, if left untreated, will progress to the point that it severely affects your cat’s quality of life and may even prove fatal. Do not leave diagnosis and treatment until it is too late.

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