Skip to main content

What you need to know about cat asthma

If you live with cats, then you’ve surely watched as they sit hunched over, coughing or retching, before finally hacking up a hairball. But hairballs are not the only reason your cat may be showing these symptoms. If the coughing happens several times a week and there’s no sign of a hairball, your cat may be suffering from feline asthma. Since this condition can be serious if left untreated, it’s important to pay attention and take your cat to a veterinarian when in doubt.

What exactly is cat asthma?

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CUCVM), while there is some debate as to the definition of feline asthma, veterinarians and researchers agree that the disease is caused by “an allergic reaction to inhaled allergens, particles that stimulate a cat’s immune system.” It’s estimated that feline asthma affects between 1% and 5% of cats. Researchers at CUCVM say it doesn’t appear that one sex is more susceptible to the disease, and while some studies suggest that Siamese cats may be predisposed to asthma, this has not been definitely proven.

As with human asthma, cats may seem perfectly normal between episodes. Veterinarians say that currently, there’s no way to tell when an attack may happen, but when they do, many cats hunch their bodies close to the ground and extend their necks forward. Other symptoms include:

  • Coughing or hacking
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid breathing

Feline asthma attacks may range from mild, with a coughing fit resolving on its own, to more severe restrictions that progress to panting and even death in rare cases, according to the Animal Health Foundation (AHF).

Cat hunched over coughing.
udeenmajid / Shutterstock

How asthma is diagnosed in cats

There’s no single test that can diagnose feline asthma. Veterinary specialists say it can be difficult to diagnose because several other diseases present similar symptoms. These include heartworm disease, congestive heart failure, lung cancer, and pneumonia. Veterinarians have to rely on information gathering and testing to diagnose asthma. They take into account a cat’s overall health history as well as the results of chest X-rays or ultrasound, bronchoscopy to see inside a cat’s lungs, and microscopic evaluation of the cells in the cat’s airway secretions. In some cases, veterinarians may do blood and allergy testing.

According to CUCVM experts in cats with asthma, “radiographs often — but not always — reveal a characteristic bright branching pattern along the airways that is created by the accumulation of inflammatory cells. Air trapped in the constricted airways may also cause the lungs to become overinflated and appear larger than normal in a radiograph.” A bronchoscopy may help in the diagnosis because the airways of cats with asthma may show a high number of inflammatory cells. However, since this result may also be found in cats suffering from other diseases, the overall health picture needs to be considered.

When diagnosing feline asthma, it’s essential for veterinarians to rule out other diseases, say experts at CUCVM. Drugs used to treat diseases with similar symptoms may not be appropriate for a cat with asthma and may even cause more harm than good.

Treatments and prognosis

While there’s no cure for feline asthma, it can be effectively treated with medications. Corticosteroids are the most effective drugs for treating the condition because they reduce the inflammation in the windpipe and bronchi, according to AHF specialists. Bronchodilators are also used in some cases because they help open up the air passages to make breathing easier. Both medications can be given via injection, orally, or through an inhaler.

Researchers at CUCVM say that experimental therapies, such as “desensitization to specific allergens (like allergy shots in people), the use of omega-3 fatty acids, and drugs intended to disrupt the metabolic pathways that lead to inflammation” present some promise in the treatment of feline asthma, but further research is needed.

Using inhaler on cat with asthma.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can feline asthma be prevented?

While you may not be able to completely prevent your cat from getting asthma attacks, there may be some preventive measures you can take, like keeping your cat’s environment free of dust and smoke, including cigarette smoke. Also, use dust-free cat litter and avoid using sprays, including insecticides, in your home or around your cat.

While it’s true that cats can never be cured of asthma, the good news is that it can usually be controlled. If you pay close attention to your cat’s symptoms and know when you need to help out with medication, you and your feline friend can share many happy years.

Editors' Recommendations

Vera Lawlor
Vera was the pet columnist for 201 Family magazine and has contributed pet and animal welfare articles to Bone-A-Fide Mutts…
What you need to know about your cat’s swollen lip – what causes it and how to help it heal
These are the most likely causes and best treatment options for your cat's swollen lip
Woman petting cat

Your sweet furry friend is a wealth of enjoyment and entertainment — from funny sleeping positions to those precious purrs. Cat behavior can be somewhat of a mystery for even the most dedicated kitty lovers, though, and those feline feelings can lead to physical manifestations that puzzle us.

If you've ever looked at your cat and noticed a swelling on the upper or lower lip, here's what you need to know: This common occurrence isn't something to worry about, but it isn't something to ignore, either. While your vet checks your cat's health, you can read up on this confusing condition. Here's what causes a cat's swollen lip.

Read more
Do puppies sleep a lot? These are the perfectly normal sleeping habits of a healthy pup
Puppies sleep a lot, but here's when it's normal and when to be concerned
Puppy sleeping on lap of human with mustard yellow sweater

Generally, puppies require abundant sleep — some will snooze up to 20 hours per day. Every pup is different, though and as they get older, the number of sleep hours decreases. By about 16 weeks of age, most dog breeds will be able to sleep through the night.

Sleep is an essential element of human and canine development. As anyone who has had a new puppy can tell you, it can be tough at first to get them into a good sleeping routine. Still, you'll want to make sure you and your new dog are rested and fit for all that life has to offer you. Here is everything you need to know about when your new puppy should be sleeping through the night and the answer to the question, "Do puppies sleep a lot?"

Read more
Why does my dog smell like Fritos? It’s weird, but there could be an underlying health issue
Why your dog's feet smell like corn chips and what to do
Two dog paws

A dog's nose knows. Dogs' noses have more than 300,000 olfactory receptors, making them a powerful tool for canines as they explore their world. The nose is also an indicator of health. Yet, what if your nose picks up a smell that seems suspicious? Specifically, you may be wondering, "Why does my dog smell like Fritos?"

If you had some corn chips recently and shared them with your dog (or they helped themselves), there's your answer. However, perhaps you're more of a Cheetos kind of person or prefer to get your crunchy fix with something sweet, like fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. The answer is less obvious. You may smell a trip to the vet coming. Are your instincts on track? Maybe. Here's why your dog's paws might smell like Fritos and what to do about it.

Read more