Unlike dogs and people, it takes a lot to make a cat cough (a proper cough, different from the “I’m about to bring up a hairball so everybody look,” sound). Cats have a weak cough reflex and so if you answered “Yes, my cat coughs”, this is significant and you should get her checked by a vet.
Indeed, one of the few things that cause cat’s to cough is feline asthma or bronchitis. Even then, not all asthmatic cats do cough, so if your cat shows some of the signs discussed below but without a cough, this doesn’t prove they don’t have asthma – if that makes sense.
What is Asthma?
Feline asthma has a lot in common with asthma in people. It is a condition, often caused by an allergy, where the airway lining becomes inflamed which narrows the airway and makes it more difficult to breathe.
OK, that’s the potted version. If you’re feeling brave enough for a little anatomy lesson, here is a more detailed explanation.
Feline airways are made up of branching tubes of cartilage, which divide and grow smaller like the branches on a tree. The widest part or trunk is the windpipe (trachea) divides into two major bronchi which go to the left and right lungs. These divide again and again to form the bronchioles that eventually end in sac-like alveoli.
The bronchi and bronchioles are lined by a moist membrane and it is this membrane which inflames during an asthma attack. The swollen lining occupies additional space inside the fixed diameter of the airway tube with the result that it becomes very narrow.
This makes it difficult for the cat to push air in and out of the lungs, which causes the symptoms. To add insult to injury, in a sort of misplaced self-defence mechanism the lungs also produce extra mucus. Unfortunately, this plugs the already narrowed airways and makes the problem worse.
There is a fine line between asthma and bronchitis. Both involve changes and narrowing in the airway, but asthma tends to be more “reactive” with sudden flare-ups, whereas the changes associated with bronchitis are more permanent. However, experts believe that asthmatic cats do have permanent changes in the lungs but don’t necessarily show symptoms all the time.
What are the Signs of Asthma?
Asthma makes it difficult to breathe and the signs of an asthma attack or bronchitis are those of an animal struggling for breath.
- Coughing: We’ve already established this is unusual, but asthmatic cats do cough. This is a wheezy, dry, harsh cough. If your cat does this regularly, then watch closely for other symptoms.
- Wheezing: The wheeze may be heard by putting your ear close to the cat’s chest. Always seek emergency veterinary help for a wheezy cat, especially if you can hear their breathing from a distance.
- The Air-hunger Position: The cat rests on their breastbone with the head and neck held in a straight line, and their elbows away from their chest. This posture straightens the windpipe and takes pressure off the ribs, making it easier breathe.
- Lack of Energy: A cat with breathing difficulties wants to rest. Moving around requires using vital oxygen reserves which the cat doesn’t have. Likewise, the cat may stop eating because swallowing means taking time off from breathing.
Obviously, if the cat has mild asthma the signs are more subtle. If in any doubt, keep the cat rested, quiet, and under observation. If the symptoms worsen at all, then seek immediate help.
What Triggers Feline Asthma?
Asthma attacks happen when the lining of the lungs becomes sensitised and has an allergic reaction. Common triggers include cigarette smoke, scented candles, dusty cat litter, human dander (ironic, this one!), and house dust mites, or nerve-triggered spasms of the airway.
How is Asthma Diagnosed?
Your vet will have a shrewd idea what’s going on from the cat’s presentation and by listening to their chest with a stethoscope. The vet may want to rule out complications such as a chest infection, and therefore take a conscious x-ray with the cat resting on an x-ray plate.
In cats that are less severely ill, the vet may perform a tracheal wash. This harvests a sample of cells, which give information about the type of inflammation present to help rule out problems such as cancer.
How is Feline Asthma Treated?
A cat in the grip of a serious asthma attack will be put in an oxygen tent and need intravenous steroids to suppress the inflammatory reaction. Drugs delivered via a nebulizer and inhaled down into the lungs are another important treatment method.
In the long term, eliminating trigger factors goes a long way to help. This can be simple, such as no longer using spray air fresheners or deodorants in the house, but often the underlying cause is never identified and the cat remains at risk of flare-ups.
In these cases, it’s a matter of “control rather than cure”, using a combination of:
- Steroids: Either oral tablets or depot injections, to reduce the allergic reaction
- Bronchodilators: Drugs that open up the airways
- Mucolytics: Drugs that break up mucus
- Humidifiers: Humidifying the air makes it less dusty
- Inhalers: A combination of inhaled steroids and bronchodilators. Special “spacer” chambers are available for cats, but whether the cat tolerates their use depends on their character.
Each cat is an individual, and what works for one, may not for another. Indeed, the treatment of asthmatic cats was summed up for me by the actions of an eminent veterinary specialist.
She had “acquired” an asthmatic cat in the course of her work. This cat, having a truly independent nature, refused to take tablets and rebelled against the inhaler. This eminent expert’s solution was to give a depot injection of steroid at the first sign of trouble, and keep her fingers crossed in-between times. Kind of proves the point that sometimes you can take a horse to water (or cat to medication) but can’t make them drink!