Cats can have asthma, and it is caused by a hypersensitivity to environmental allergens (a substance that causes an allergic reaction). The disease in cats resembles bronchial asthma in people. It affects about 1% of all domestic cats (just under 1m in the US). It is believed that Siamese cats may have a slight predisposition to the disease. Sometimes suffers have to bear severe respiratory distress at which point they are taken to emergency services at a veterinary clinic. Sometimes cats have a chronic history of wheezing and coughing.
Hairball problems can also cause coughing so this condition needs to be distinguished from feline asthma. It may be brought on seasonally and asthma may be exacerbated during these times.
Asthma attacks may be triggered by exposure to inhaled carpet deodorisers, various sprays, kitty litter dust, and tobacco smoke. A leading cause of asthma may be heartworm but in many cases the cause is unknown.
The attack begins with sudden difficulty in breathing including wheezing and coughing. The muscles surrounding the bronchi suddenly contract and the bronchial tubes are dramatically narrowed. As the cat exhales the wheezing is heard.
A severe attack may cause the cat to sit with her shoulders hunched or she may lie chest down with her mouth open trying to breathe. The mucous membranes turn a bluish colour because of a lack of oxygen in the blood. This is called cyanosis.
Two other conditions produce similar signs and symptoms: pleural effusion and pulmonary oedema. See your veterinarian about all these conditions. This is a note no more because I am not a veterinarian. You should be aware of that.
Your need to take your cat to a veterinarian as a matter of urgency to relieve bronchial spasm and to ease the difficulties with breathing. An emergency treatment that may be used is epinephrine. An acute attack will be eased with bronchodilators such as terbutaline and cortisone. The veterinarians say that antihistamines and cough suppressants not be used. They interfere with a cat’s ability to clear her own secretions, they say.
Sometimes asthmatic cats may have to be removed from an allergic environment and hospitalised for sedation. An oxygen cage may be used to provide a cat with supplemental oxygen.
Feline asthma is a chronic condition. The attacks recur. They can be controlled with maintenance doses of an oral corticosteroid. Cats can become dependent upon it and therefore the medication is usually given every other day.
The drug might be tapered but this can cause an immediate relapse. If pollen causes the asthma, and therefore it is seasonal, a cat may only need medication during that time.
In America a high percentage of asthmatic cats are treated with inhalers such as Aerokat (and its subsequent brand-name). The most commonly used inhalant drugs in the US are albuterol (a bronchodilator) and steroids such as fluticasone (and subsequent names). If the cat suffers with a concurrent mycoplasma infection antibiotics are needed.
It goes without saying that it is useful to minimise exposure to allergens if you can isolate them and a HEPA filter in the house may assist in reducing symptoms.
Sources: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook.