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While we generally consider cats to be fairly independent, easy-care pets, they are just as capable of developing a chronic disease as any mammal. In fact, there are certain conditions they share with people, such as asthma. And while researchers still have a lot to learn about feline asthma, they believe it is likely caused by allergens in the same way that the disease is caused in humans, says Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM, a Seattle, Washington veterinary examiner for the pumpkin -Pet Insurance.
The good news is that with the right treatment, cat asthma doesn’t have to cause unnecessary stress on your feline friend.
Can Cats Have Asthma?
Yes, research has shown that up to five percent of cats have cat asthma. Because cats and humans are mammals, they share many of the same disease processes, Johnson points out. “People get allergy-induced asthma,” she explains. “And we believe that in cats it is also an allergy-induced process in which inhaled allergens trigger an immune response.”
Allergens that affect cats and lead to asthma depend on where you live, but can include:
The reaction leads to the production of mucus in the airways, swelling and inflammation. In turn, the muscles in this area begin to cramp, which narrows the airways. “What happens is a cat breathes in,” Johnson explains. “Then the air gets trapped in those lower airways and you can’t breathe out. You try, but then you gasp.”
Asthma symptoms in cats
Johnson notes that you may notice any of the following signs in a cat who has asthma:
A chronic cough
Exerting effort to breathe, pushing their bellies out
Open mouth breathing with panting
Over time, a cat’s airway anatomy can even change for the worse. This is known as airway remodeling, which can lead to a chronic cough, Johnson explains. And as with any chronic illness, pets can lose weight or have their fur changed.
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If your cat has any of these symptoms acutely or persistently, it’s best to see your veterinarian or call your local veterinary clinic to let them know of your emergency, advises Johnson.
To diagnose asthma, veterinarians will do blood tests or intradermal skin tests on cats to see what they’re allergic to in order to target the bigger picture.
Cat asthma treatments and home remedies to make your cat feel better
If you go to the veterinary clinic because of an emergency situation where your cat cannot breathe, the veterinarian will first sedate and oxygenate her. “It can be an oxygen-supplemented or oxygen-fed kennel,” Johnson explains.
When health care providers confirm (usually through x-rays) that asthma is the culprit, they give the cat a bronchodilator drug – albuterol sulfate, also known as salbutamol (brand names: Proventil and Ventolin) – to treat bronchoconstriction, or narrowing of the bronchial smooth muscles, caused by an asthma attack. But that’s not the mainstay of asthma, says Johnson. It’s just the first step.
“From then on we have to get rid of the inflammation, so we use steroids like prednisone,” she notes. Your options generally include the steroid either in tablet form or as an inhaler, such as the AeroKat, which has a spacer specially designed for cats that fits over their mouth.
How often you treat your cat with steroid therapy will depend on your cat’s asthma and the recommendations of the veterinarian.
At the same time, your vet may also recommend allergy shots or sublingual therapy, which blends allergens into a formula that goes under the tongue. “It’s given in microdoses and slowly increased over time,” Johnson explains.
In addition to standard steroid treatment, Johnson recommends the following lifestyle measures:
Increase your cat’s wellbeing by eliminating any allergens that appear to be triggering the condition.
Change your household air filter. You can place it near your cat’s sleeping place.
To minimize dust mites, wash and dry the bedding regularly on a hot cycle.
Do not smoke or vape indoors.
Since omega-3s have been shown to fight the inflammation associated with asthma in cats, give them a salmon oil supplement.
What to do if your cat has an asthma attack
When your cat has an asthma attack, he will crouch toward the floor and hold his head and neck forward while panting or coughing. “If you see open mouth breathing, abdominal cramps, or an increase in breathing rate, it would be a sign that you should see the vet,” says Johnson.
Do your best to keep your cat calm, then put it in a pet carrier and in the car. “Turn on the air conditioning when it’s hot, call your emergency room and tell them you’re coming,” says Johnson. “And hopefully they will set up an oxygen cage for you. And you can get treatment right away.”
Ultimately, if you are struggling with cat asthma, Johnson emphasizes the importance of consulting with your veterinarian or specialist handling the case for specific instructions for your pet. Because as every animal parent knows, every kitten is unique and requires individual care.