What is feline asthma?

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It can be pretty alarming watching (or hearing) a cat cough. Their body contorts like a feline yoga master all while making ‘Jurassic Park’ sound effects. Most of the time, the finale to this short-lived, dramatic show is the appearance of a slimy, sausage-like fur ball and a relieved, nonchalant cat.

But there may be times when your cat’s cough seems more persistent than usual and no fur ball appears. Or you’re just more aware of your cat’s breathing but are not sure why. It’s always best to seek specific veterinary advice, especially where breathing is concerned. There are many conditions that could cause your cat’s cough — one possible explanation is feline asthma.

What is feline asthma?

Every time your cat inhales, air travels through their nose and throat into the trachea (windpipe). Inside the chest, the trachea splits into two smaller, air-filled tubes (bronchi) each connecting to a lung. The bronchi further divide many times, forming a root-like network of tiny airways within each lung.

The air we all breathe contains many tiny, unseen particles (allergens) that usually don’t cause any issues. For cats with asthma, these microscopic particles can spell big trouble. Inhaled allergens irritate the lining of the cat’s airways, triggering an allergic response (inflammation). The airways narrow making breathing more difficult. In an attempt to protect the lungs, cells produce mucous that builds up within airways causing blockages and infections. 

Potentially harmful allergens are everywhere. From cat litter to candles and perfume to pollen, it’s almost impossible to avoid breathing them in. It’s not even a cleanliness thing. In fact, ‘Hinch-ing’ your house could make your cat’s asthma worse; strongly-scented cleaning products can really irritate the airways. Don’t abandon the mop completely though as living in a dusty environment isn’t great either, nor is breathing in smoke from cigarettes or fires. For some cats, exercise can trigger a bout of asthma (although these cats probably have underlying allergies too). 

Vets often use different terms for feline asthma: ‘chronic bronchitis’, ‘allergic airway disease’ or ‘allergic bronchitis’ all describe the same condition. 

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The vet may run a variety of tests.

Diagnosing asthma

Vets need to rule out and test for a variety of conditions before diagnosing your cat with asthma. Fur balls commonly imitate asthma symptoms and they’re straight forward to treat with a special laxative to move them through the digestive tract. 

Other cough-causing conditions include: foreign bodies (such as tickly grass irritating the throat), pneumonia, heart disease, lung cancers, and airway parasites. Up until recently, lungworm in cats was relatively rare in the UK and predominantly considered a doggy problem. It’s becoming more common now though and while the parasite is different to that found in dogs, the effects can be just as devastating.

Before carrying out any tests, your vet will examine your cat and listen carefully to their chest. You get extra brownie points for taking a video of your cat coughing as they rarely ‘perform’ for us during the consultation. Once we understand more about your cat’s symptoms, we can plan which tests will be the most useful: 

● Blood tests

Along with checking your cat’s biochemistry (liver and kidney function), blood tests show any changes in the blood cells themselves. Some cats with asthma have high levels of disease-fighting white blood cells called eosinophils. There are other conditions that cause eosinophil levels to increase but asthma is certainly one of the possible reasons.

Read the rest of the feature in the ‘July 2022’ issue, available to read instantly on our digital edition HERE or purchase the print edition HERE.


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