Asthma in cats

Asthma in cats is an inflammatory condition caused by allergies. It affects up to 2% of cats in the UK. Asthma is not curable, but if caught early, it can be managed well with medication. 

Asthma can affect cats of any age, but signs usually start between 2 and 8 years old. Feline asthma is also known as allergic airway disease, feline chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or allergic or feline bronchitis. Asthma can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. Contact a vet if your cat has any signs of asthma.



What is asthma in cats?

Asthma in cats is caused by allergies.

  • Asthma occurs when there is narrowing and inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs.
  • In cats, this is caused by allergies to particles that are inhaled.
  • Stress can worsen symptoms of asthma in cats.
  • Common allergens include smoke (from cigarettes or fireplaces), pollen, dust mites, aerosol sprays, and dusty cat litter.
  • Asthma is an ongoing and incurable condition.
  • Cats with asthma can lead a happy and healthy life if the condition is managed and treated appropriately. This includes lifestyle changes and medications.

Symptoms of asthma in cats can become extremely severe and even life threatening if not treated with medication. Speak to a vet as soon as possible if your cat shows any signs of asthma.



Symptoms of asthma in cats

The signs of asthma can occur suddenly or slowly over a period of time. Coughing is often one of the first symptoms noticed. Other signs include:

  • Wheezing
  • Faster breathing than normal: normal breathing rate for cats is 24-30 breaths per minute
  • Laboured or difficulty breathing, known as dyspnoea
  • Struggling to breathe after exercise
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Blue gums or lips
  • Coughing, hacking or gagging
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting

An asthma attack is a sudden onset of symptoms. They extend their necks straight out and hunch their bodies close to the floor while gasping for breath. This is an emergency and needs to be treated right away.

signs of asthma in cats
Open-mouth breathing in cats is never normal


signs of asthma in cats
Lethargy or tiredness is a sign of illness



Are some cats more at risk of asthma than others?

  • Age: symptoms usually start between 2 and 8 years old
  • Breeds at risk include Siamese and Himalayan
  • Outdoor cats are at a higher risk than indoor cats as they are exposed to more allergens in the environment
  • Stress can lead to and worsen symptoms of asthma in cats
  • There is a link that female cats are slightly more prone than males



How is asthma diagnosed in cats?

Asthma can be tricky to diagnose, and other diseases will need to be ruled out first, including heart disease and respiratory infections.

The first step is a physical exam, where your vet will listen to your cat’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Further investigation includes:

  • Blood tests: check for certain blood cells called eosinophils, which are often increased with asthma, and any other conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease
  • Imaging: usually x-rays, CT or bronchoscopy
  • A bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) is a procedure used to collect a fluid sample from the airways. With asthma, a specific white blood cell called eosinophils is increased in the sample.
  • Allergy testing may be possible to determine the specific triggers for your cat

Sedation or general anaesthesia is needed for most of these tests. If your cat is critically ill, medication may be advised first to improve the symptoms.


Vet treatment

What’s the treatment for asthma in cats

Treatment for asthma in cats depends on how severe the symptoms are.

Sudden onset, severe symptoms

  • If your cat suddenly appears to be gasping for breath, having blue gums, or in respiratory distress, your vet will initially try to stabilise the symptoms before any tests are performed.
  • Oxygen therapy, given by mask or in special cage
  • Sedation to reduce stress
  • Medication to help open the airways
  • Hospitalisation for continuous monitoring of respiratory rate and other vital signs

Longer onset mild symptoms

  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in the airways: available as tablets, injectables, and inhalants. Inhalant versions usually have the best effect with the fewest adverse side effects.
  • Bronchodilators help open up the airways: available as tablets, injectables, and inhalants. Inhalants are usually preferred as they are more effective.
  • Inhalant medications are given through a face mask.
  • Your cat may need medications daily or only during flare-ups.
  • If there is a secondary infection, antibiotics may be needed.
cat asthma treatment
Inhalant medications given via a mask

The following treatments are all under investigation for potential future use in treatment of asthma

  • Omega fatty acids
  • Allergen specific immunotherapy
  • Stem cell therapy


Home treatment

How to look after a cat with asthma at home

If your cat has a sudden attack

  • Keep calm and make sure your cat is in a quiet and cool area.
  • Avoid any stress for your cat, as this can worsen symptoms.
  • Give any medication if it has already been prescribed by your vet.
  • Severe attacks will usually need hospitalisation; get your cat to the nearest vet as soon as possible.

Living with a cat with asthma

Long-term home changes involve avoiding triggers where possible

  • Do not smoke in the home and avoid using fireplaces
  • Do not use aerosols such as perfumes, sprays, incense sticks, or air fresheners around your cat
  • Avoid cat litters that are dusty or fragranced
  • Keep your home well ventilated and vacuum often to reduce dust build-up
  • Avoid stress for your cat by following the tips in this article
  • Allergy testing (a blood or skin test with your local vet) may help determine what allergens your cat is sensitive to
  • Use any prescribed medication as advised by your vet
  • Obesity can worsen the signs of asthma. Keep your cat on a balanced diet and at a healthy weight.

Body Condition Score (BCS) is a scale that gives a practical evaluation of the fat coverage of your cat’s body. By checking how easy or not it is to feel certain bony areas of the body, a score is then produced. There are several scales, from 1 to 5 or 1 to 9. The ideal body condition lies in the middle, so either 3/5 or 5/9.

The body areas normally checked for fat coverage are:

1. ribs and spine

2. hips and shoulders

3. waist

Body condition scoring (BCS) in cats

Here are a few tips on how to do it.

With your pet in a standing position:

  • Place your hands on the rib cage and gently feel for each rib, without pressing too hard
  • Feel the waist and look from the top and the side (if you have a very furry breed, it may be harder to assess)
  • Feel the spine, which runs down the middle of the back
  • Feel the top of the hips and shoulders



Tips on how to prevent asthma in cats

Unfortunately, asthma is not preventable. There are some ways to help reduce the severity of symptoms. See our at home treatment section for more information.

Is my family at risk of catching asthma?

Asthma in cats is not contagious to other cats or humans.


When to worry

When you should be worried about asthma in cats

Seek help from a vet if:

  • Your cat shows coughing, wheezing and fast breathing (over 40 breaths per minute)
  • Seek an emergency appointment if your cat has blue gums or lips, is open mouth breathing or gasping for breath

Joii can help if you have any questions about:

  • Common allergens in cats and how to avoid them
  • Your cat’s body condition or weight
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