What is Asthma?
Asthma is a respiratory disease that occurs when the small airways in the lungs are constricted. It starts when excess mucus forms in the airways, leading to swelling and inflammation, and eventually spasm of the airway muscles and constriction of the airways. When this happens, the cat will be unable to draw deep breaths and may have an asthma “attack,” characterized by coughing or wheezing. During asthma attacks, most cats will crouch down with their neck extended and cough or wheeze. Some people describe it as looking like “hacking up a hairball but no hairball comes out.” Asthma is often associated with allergies.
How is Feline Asthma Diagnosed?
The first step in diagnosis is a thorough physical examination by your veterinarian. Often, asthma is highly suspected based on history and physical exam findings. Radiographs (x-rays) are often recommended to help confirm the diagnosis. Cats with moderate to severe asthma have classic changes to x-rays, such as visible inflammation of the small airways. Some cats with asthma will have normal radiographs, especially if the images were obtained when the cat was not symptomatic or if the disease is relatively mild. In these cases, treatment is generally recommended if the disease is highly suspected, and response to therapy can confirm the diagnosis.
How is Asthma Treated?
As feline asthma is an inflammatory condition, the primary treatment is anti-inflammatory doses of steroids. Steroids can be administered by an inhaler, pills, or a long-acting injection. When cats are receiving treatment for asthma, we will need to monitor bloodwork once every 6 months to ensure it is safe to continue the medication. Occasionally other medications may be needed if the disease is severe. Some cats with asthma respond when airway irritants in the house, such as scented litter or scented sprays, are eliminated.
What About Heartworm Disease?
The clinical signs and radiographic findings with feline asthma are very similar to those of feline heartworm disease. Your veterinarian may recommend testing for heartworm disease, although this test is sometimes inconclusive in cats. Due to the overlap in symptoms and difficulty diagnosing heartworm disease in cats, we sometimes can’t tell for sure if a cat has asthma or heartworm disease. Heartworm disease in cats is treated with steroids (at the same dose used for feline asthma) and monthly Advantage Multi. Therefore, we recommend treating your cat with Advantage Multi every month, year-round.