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About Eric Barchas, D.V.M.

Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, emergency medicine, hospice and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile.

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Feline Asthma (Feline Bronchitis)

Animals Affected

Cats

Overview

Feline asthma refers to a group of clinical syndromes with similar symptoms and treatments.  The syndromes that comprise asthma cause inflammation (irritation) and swelling of air passages in the lungs.  The inflammation and swelling lead to symptoms including episodes of coughing, wheezing, and, in some instances, difficulty breathing.

Most cats who are diagnosed with asthma cannot be cured.  However, with proper management the symptoms can be controlled, and in most cases the syndrome does not affect lifespan or quality of life.

Feline bronchitis is another name for feline asthma.

Symptoms

  • The most common symptom of asthma is intermittent, episodic coughing. The frequency of the episodes may range from one or two times per week to several times per day.  Cats usually appear normal in between episodes.
  • Cats with severe asthma may suffer periods of respiratory distress, in which they have difficulty breathing. This situation is life-threatening.

Risk Factors and Prevention

  • Individual susceptibility plays a major role in the development of asthma.  It is suspected that hereditary and genetic factors play an important role in this susceptibility.
  • Asthma most commonly develops in young or middle-aged cats.
  • Exposure to airborne irritants or allergens, such as dust, smoke, household cleaning products, pollen, mold spores, and perfumed cat litters may trigger episodes of asthma.
  • Lung infections with bacteria may exacerbate asthma.
  • Some experts suspect that exposure to fleas can lead to immune system stimulation that may contribute to the symptoms of asthma.

Complications

Most cases of asthma cause intermittent episodes of coughing or wheezing but do not severely compromise health or quality of life.

Cats that suffer from episodes of respiratory distress may experience weakness, collapse, and even death if they are unable to move air into their lungs adequately.  Any cat with respiratory distress should receive immediate veterinary attention.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis usually is based on physical examination, description of symptoms, and X-ray evaluation of the lungs.

In some cases, stool tests for lung worms, blood tests for heartworms, and advanced techniques for visualizing or sampling the air passages of the lungs are recommended.

Treatment

Many treatments are available for asthma. Although none is guaranteed to be effective, most cases of asthma can be controlled.

  • Elimination of airborne irritants and allergens is the most basic, and often the most effective, action that can be taken.  Smokers should refrain from smoking in the house.  Cat litters and household cleaning products should be evaluated to determine if they might be contributing to the syndrome.   Regular vacuuming and cleaning may lower levels of pollen and mold spores.   Air filters may help to keep airborne particulate matter to a minimum.
  • Some cats benefit from a two week trial of antibiotics (doxycycline is most commonly used) to ensure that bacterial infection of the lungs is not contributing to symptoms.
  • Flea prevention will help to reduce immune system stimulation.
  • Anti-asthma medications are available for cats with asthma that does not respond to milder treatments.  The most commonly used medicines are corticosteroids (such as prednisone) and bronchodilators (such as terbutaline). These classes of medicines most often are given orally.  However, they can be given by injection or via inhalation as well.  Recent experience suggests that administering anti-asthma medications via inhalation may be very effective.
  • Cyproheptadine, a medicine that blocks the neurotransmitter serotonin, may help some cats with asthma that does not respond to the therapies already listed.
  • Some veterinarians advocate acupuncture as a treatment for feline asthma. The effectiveness of acupuncture for this purpose is not universally accepted.
  • Cats with severe respiratory distress usually are hospitalized for intensive care until the respiratory distress resolves.

Follow-up

For most cats, the success of treatment is measured by improvement of symptoms at home.

Cats with pronounced changes on chest X-rays usually require follow-up X-rays to monitor the syndrome.

The goal of treatment, as mentioned above, is to control the symptoms of asthma and prevent compromise of quality of life.  Curing asthma is uncommon.

Miscellaneous

The symptoms of feline asthma are similar in many cases to those of human asthma. However, the underlying pathology of the syndrome is not necessarily the same.

Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine are sometimes prescribed to treat feline asthma.  Most experts believe that these medicines are not appropriate for this use.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.