Guest post by Andrea Tasi, VMD

Has your cat been coughing? Watch the video at the bottom of this post and you may recognize that sound. Many people assume that the cat is trying to cough up a hairball and don’t realize that their cat could have asthma. Untreated, asthma can progress and even be fatal. But, like human asthmatics, cats can be treated and the disease can be managed.

It is estimated that about 1% of cats suffer from asthma. Siamese, Burmese and other Oriental breeds show a greater incidence, but any breed can have asthma. It usually first occurs in young to middle-aged cats between the ages of two and eight.

It is widely recognized that asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens in the environment such as pollens, dust, smoke, fumes, mold, fragrances and aerosols. Heat, cold, stress and exertion can also trigger attacks.

What is Feline Asthma?

Feline asthma is a disorder of the lower airways, called bronchi and bronchioles, in which inflammation causes increased production of mucus, spasms of the airways and difficulty moving air out of the airways. It is considered to be an immune-mediated condition, which means that the inflammation is triggered by some allergic or over-active response of the cat’s own immune system.

What are the Symptoms?

Different cats may be affected in different ways, but the most common symptom is a wheezing or gagging cough, often called a hairball-type cough. In my professional experience however, hairballs do not cause coughing, as they are gastrointestinal and not respiratory in origin. Hairballs can cause retching, gagging and vomiting. With an asthmatic cough, most cats will stretch their necks out, get in a hunkered down posture and then cough in either a dry or moist sounding fashion. They may stick their tongues out a bit when coughing. Often it sounds and seems as if they are coughing some mucus up and then swallowing it.

Other symptoms may include decreased activity, becoming winded by normal activity, increased rate and effort of breathing and even open-mouth breathing in severely affected patients who are having trouble moving air out of their lungs.

Feline asthma in its most severe form can cause death by asphyxiation: the cat simply can’t breathe.


How is Asthma Diagnosed?

A cat presenting with a history of coughing, wheezing and/or respiratory difficulty will usually need the following tests to determine what is going on:

• A thorough physical examination, including listening carefully to the lungs and heart.

• Chest radiographs, commonly known as x-rays. These help rule out other causes of respiratory symptoms like heart enlargement, fluid in or around the lungs, tumors or pneumonia. Many cats with feline asthma have prominent airways and hyperinflated lungs, which means too much air is trapped in the lungs. It is important to note that cats can be severely asthmatic and have normal chest radiographs.

• A complete blood count: a blood test which looks at red and white blood cell numbers and helps determine if a patient is responding to inflammation or infection. Many cats with feline asthma have an increased number of eosinophils, a white blood cell type that responds to allergic and parasitic inflammation.

• A heartworm test. Heartworm disease can mimic the symptoms of feline asthma.

• A fecal test for intestinal parasites. Some intestinal parasites have life stages that migrate through the lungs and can cause inflammation and respiratory symptoms.

In general, the diagnosis of asthma is made by ruling out other causes of coughing and respiratory difficulty, as there is no one test that determines with 100% assurance that a cat has asthma or not.

What are the treatment options?

Conventional medical treatment of feline asthma is based upon two main drug types:

• Corticosteroids: This class of drugs is anti-inflammatory in nature. Oral prednisone or prednisolone, and/or inhaled forms of corticosteroids are used to reduce the inflammation in the airways. Side effects of corticosteroids can include increased thirst and urination, increased appetite, weight gain, diabetes, lowered resistance to infection, and even behavioral changes.

• Bronchodilators: This class of drugs helps open up the airways. Both oral and inhaled forms of bronchodilators are used. Side effects are generally minimal with bronchodilators, but these drugs should never be used alone, as that can actually worsen the condition. Special inhalant masks are available for cats to administer these medications.

• Several other drugs, such as antihistamines and anti-leukotrienes, are also used by some veterinarians. Holistic veterinarians may use alternative medical therapies to treat some asthmatic cats.

If a cat is in an emergency situation in a veterinary clinic, oxygen therapy will also be used.

How Does Diet Relate to Feline Asthma?

In over two decades of feline practice, I have attended many continuing education seminars on feline asthma and rarely heard diet discussed as a potential cause or trigger for the condition.

However, I have had several clients who, on their own initiative, changed what they fed their cats and found that the symptoms of asthma were either greatly reduced or eliminated. What was the change they all made? They removed all dry food and all grain-based products from their cat’s diet.

Most did this by simply switching to grain-free canned cat foods. Some used balanced commercially prepared or home-made grain-free, raw meat cat foods, either as the only food fed or in combination with some grain-free canned foods. After observing this effect, I incorporated diet changes into my case management of cats with asthma. I began to see many cases where my patients no longer needed medication — or much reduced doses — to control their asthma symptoms. It is important to note that not all cases of asthma will improve with the elimination of dry food and grains. But it is worth considering this change as a much less intrusive method of reducing or controlling symptoms. I have never observed a worsening of a cat’s asthma from a gradual and nutritionally balanced diet change.

Why does this diet change help some cats? It is my opinion that the processed and fractionated grain products in many cat foods are strong triggers for allergic or overactive inflammatory responses in some cats. Remove these triggers, and these cats get better or are even cured.

If you have an asthmatic cat on medication and are interested in this approach, you must do this in consultation with your veterinarian. Do not, under any circumstances, simply stop giving your cat his/her medications.

If your cat is on high doses of corticosteroid drugs, it is also important to remember that these drugs can be suppressive to the immune system, rendering a cat more susceptible to infection. In these cases, I would advocate using either a canned or home cooked grain-free, nutritionally balanced food, not a raw diet.

Andrea Tasi, VMD owns and operates Just Cats, Naturally, a housecall based, feline-exclusive practice dedicated to the holistic, individualized approach to each cat. Dr. Tasi uses classical homeopathy, nutritional therapy, and behavior/environment-related techniques to help healthy cats stay well and help ill cats regain their health.

This article originally appeared on the Feline Nutrition website, and is re-posted with their permission. The Feline Nutrition is dedicated to providing thoroughly researched information on feline health and nutrition. If you care about cats and their health, please consider joining the society. Membership is free, and a growing membership base will help the organization spread the word about species-appropriate nutrition for cats.

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7 Comments on Another Furball? It Might Be Feline Asthma

  1. My childhood cat adopted in 1971 developed a cough somewhere around 5-7 years old. No one really paid much attention, and she was an indoor-outdoor cat, much to my consternation. But in her later life, when I was an adult, the cough had worsened. A veterinarian in the early 80s prescribed prednisone but no real diagnosis. A few years later I ran her to emergency in obvious respiratory distress and found she’d actually had asthma her entire life and it had developed into emphysema and consumed her lungs. At that point I had no choice but to put her to sleep., right then, no medications or supplemental oxygen could help her. I was haunted and learned how she likely suffered, and realized that was the most likely reason she frequently peed under the bed. That was a catalyst for me–I resolved I’d never ignore symptoms nor accept a non-diagnosis again, and I’d learn what my cats needed.

    One of my current cats was a foster who failed his temperament test in the shelter as a kitten and was to be euthanized. The shelter surrendered him to the rescue I volunteer with and he came here to foster. At about 16 months, after a month or so of observing his coughing and other behavior in early autumn when the furnace first comes on, he had a thorough workup with our rescue’s veterinarian and found he had mild asthma. He’d likely always had respiratory issues from being abandoned as a very young feral kitten and that was the reason for his behavior in the shelter–when stressed, his airways constricted, and he panicked. Because no one was interested in adopting an asthmatic cat, I adopted him from the rescue, and they support his care, which has been minimal. He is 7 years old now and watching me type this about him, his asthma has only progressed slightly looking at his radiographs, and he only occasionally needs a course of prednisolone. I don’t feed dry food, fed raw food exclusively for several years, and now include canned and homemade foods in the household diet, although the canned isn’t always grain-free. I try to keep the air hydrated during heating season. I haven’t used any type of clay litter, for decades, using hardwood pellets most of the time instead. I can see there are times when he’s a little subdued and he can appear stressed as well, but he’s wildly playful and social with the household most of the time. I record anything out of the ordinary.

  2. Had a heart-wrenching experience with an asthmatic cat. She had 10 strikes against her from birth. Some you can help but in her case it was on going for years to the point of heavily congested lungs.

    • Hello Mary,
      I just read about what you went thru with Holly. You did everything possible to save her so many times! There are times when God says “come to me as you have fought for so long to rest”. Just know that you did everything possible to save her. You will see her on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Hugs to you.

  3. Tasha has asthma. Her attacks have decreased to a few a year that I give her prednisone for when she has it. I don’t have any carpeting in the house and follow a lot of the guidelines for. Just saw a great You Tube video by Dr Sarah Wooten that explained a lot about asthma and how it’s diagnosed and care options.

  4. This is really good advice. Coughing should never be ignored. I thought Nani was trying to cough up a hairball and I kept putting off a vet visit. I found out she had heart failure.

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