Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs in ways that make breathing more difficult. In cats, asthma is thought to occur when the immune system overreacts to allergens in the air. Allergens can include things like pollen, mold, dust, smoke, and scented household products.
This abnormal immune response results in two main changes within the lungs:
Thinking of airways as tubes can be helpful in imagining how these changes make it harder for air to move (i.e., breathing becomes more challenging).
Asthma in Cats
How much the airflow is reduced determines how significantly the cat’s breathing is affected and, as a result, the signs that we see. Some cats may only have a mild persistent cough, while others experience severe respiratory distress. Symptoms can develop suddenly (i.e., an asthma attack) or gradually over time.
Feline Asthma: 6 Signs and Symptoms
1. Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
A severe asthma attack occurs when very little air is moving through the lungs and the cat isn’t getting enough oxygen. Affected cats show signs of respiratory distress (trouble breathing), including:
A cat having trouble breathing is a veterinary emergency!
The veterinarian will provide oxygen and supportive care, ask questions about your cat’s history, perform a complete physical examination, and run some tests to determine whether the dyspnea is due to asthma or another medical condition.
2. Noisy breathing
You would probably have to listen very closely to hear a normal cat breathing comfortably. If you can hear your cat’s breathing easily, and particularly if you notice a wheezing sound when they exhale (breathe out), this could be a sign of asthma. The abnormal sound is caused by air being forced through narrowed airways.
In general, any change in the sound of a cat’s breathing should prompt a visit to the veterinarian, but especially if combined with other signs on this list.
3. Fast breathing (tachypnea)
Cats with asthma breathe quickly because they are unable to take full, deep breaths. You can check your cat’s breathing rate at home by counting how many times their chest rises and falls in one minute (one rise plus one fall equals one breath). Make sure they aren’t purring!
If a cat is sitting, laying quietly, or sleeping and taking more than 40 breaths per minute, they should receive urgent veterinary attention. Breathing rates lower than this can still be concerning if combined with other respiratory symptoms, particularly any sign of distress.
Every cat is different, so it is helpful to have an idea of your cat’s normal resting breathing rate. Checking their breathing rate periodically means you will notice if it’s getting faster, which may help your veterinarian diagnose asthma (or another medical condition) in the early stages.
4. Coughing or hacking
Cats with asthma cough in response to irritation and airway changes caused by allergens they have inhaled. Coughing may also be an attempt to clear the mucus that can build up in the airways of asthmatic cats.
The cat may sound like it is trying to cough up a hairball, but nothing comes out.
Coughing in a cat raises suspicion for asthma, but should always be investigated by a veterinarian to rule out other possible causes.
5. Lethargy (tiredness)
Cats with asthma can have a hard time maintaining normal oxygen levels in their blood because they aren’t able to move air through their lungs efficiently. The combination of struggling to breathe and low oxygen causes them to feel tired.
Affected cats may hide, seem less energetic, and have a harder time carrying out their normal activities (e.g., running, jumping, climbing).
Lethargy can be associated with a wide variety of medical conditions and does not point to asthma specifically. A veterinarian will interpret it in combination with a cat’s other symptoms, physical exam, and results of diagnostic testing.
This one might not seem intuitive, but forceful coughing and the effort associated with difficult breathing can sometimes lead to vomiting. This is a tricky symptom because cats can vomit for many different reasons. Vomiting in and of itself is certainly not enough to diagnose feline asthma, but it should be considered an additional clue if a cat is also experiencing other symptoms on this list.
As with lethargy, vomiting should be interpreted in light of a cat’s full clinical picture.
If you have a cat, it is helpful to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms associated with feline asthma. However, a veterinary assessment and tests (e.g., x-rays of the chest) are needed to confirm the diagnosis. While asthma cannot be cured, it can often be managed effectively, making it possible for affected cats to still enjoy a good quality of life.
If you are suspicious that your cat may have asthma, consider writing down the symptoms you notice at home (including how frequently they occur and how severe they are). You may also wish to note any changes in your cat’s environment which could act as potential triggers for asthma.
Most importantly, always seek veterinary attention if you have any concerns about your cat’s health.
Featured Image Credit: udeenmajid, Shutterstock