Do You Have A Coughing, Wheezing Cat?

By Teresa Garden, DVM

If you have a cat that is coughing or wheezing, your cat may have asthma. The preferred medical term is feline allergic bronchitis. It is a syndrome of reversible airway inflammation and narrowing. Asthma is often triggered by inhaled allergens. Sometimes the allergens can be identified. Often, they are not. Pollen allergies are suspected in cases with a history of seasonality. Mold spores can cause direct trauma to respiratory tissues.

It is particularly hard to control these reactions. Tobacco smoke is also a common cause of asthma in our cats that share a home with a smoker. Asthma can also be caused by air pollution, ozone, and air-deodorizing devices. Some of these devices generate ozone which may aggravate asthma in human patients and perhaps in kitty cats as well. Other culprits involved may be out-gassing noxious chemicals from building materials and new carpeting. Common household items such as perfumes, scented candles, incense, deodorizing sprays, fabric softeners, and aromatic oils can act as triggers for asthma in some of our feline patients. Adverse reactions to food can lead to allergic bronchitis.
Young and middle-age cats are most often affected by asthma. You may notice coughing, wheezing, and respiratory distress. The symptoms are episodic and can be brought on by exercise or stress. Your pet will act normal between episodes. Asthma is diagnosed based upon clinical history, physical exam, and thoracic radiographs. Transtracheal washes or bronchoalveolar lavages may be performed to confirm the diagnosis. These tests can check for underlying infectious causes of asthma. Cats suspected of having asthma should be checked for heartworm disease and should have a stool sample checked for lungworm. These two diseases can mimic the symptoms of asthma.

If your cat is in extreme respiratory distress, emergency treatment is required at a critical care facility. Your cat will need oxygen therapy provided by an oxygen cage. Steroids will be given IV to decrease inflammation in the airways and bronchodilators will be given to open the airways. Most feline asthma patients will respond to long term management. We stress eliminating or reducing exposure to inhaled irritants and potential allergens. Clay litters can be replaced with low dust clumping litter that is non-scented. We encourage no smoking in the household. Minimize exposure to aerosols, powders, perfumes, candles, incense, and fragrances. Replacing air filters frequently can help.

Steroids are often needed for long term control of asthma symptoms. Prednisolone is given initially in an oral form to decrease inflammation in the lungs. When used long term this drug can have adverse effects on the body and predispose your cat to diabetes and obesity. Therefore, we often advise using Flovent which is an inhaled corticosteroid. It is much safer since it delivers the steroid directly to the lungs where it is needed. It is extremely effective in controlling the disease and does not have adverse effects. Most cats will readily adapt to having Flovent delivered thru the Aero Kat mask.

Food allergens are increasingly recognized as a factor in humans with allergies. I believe this to be true for cats as well. Feeding your cat a hypoallergenic diet or limited diet may reduce antigenic stimulation and improve asthma symptoms. Holistic therapies can benefit our asthmatic felines. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA taken daily may reduce immune-mediated inflammation in the lungs. Antioxidants may help as well. Antioxidant “defense” mechanisms appear to be compromised in human asthma patients.

Antioxidant supplementation with Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and Selenium is safe and may have benefit. Human asthmatics have decreased levels of Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) which is considered to have natural antihistamine effects. Vitamin B6 supplementation in clinical trials helped reduce levels of required medication and decreased the frequency of asthmatic episodes. Quercetin, a flavenoid, has potent antioxidant properties and inhibits cells from releasing histamines. It has been shown to improve compromised breathing in asthmatic patients.

Integrative therapies can work well with medications such as Flovent to manage asthma in our feline patients. Holistic therapies can improve immune health of these cats and will allow us to use a decreased dose of pharmacologic agents. A holistic approach including diet, antioxidants and fish oil will help to decrease local cellular inflammation, balance immune response, and encourage toxin elimination via the respiratory system. Asthma cannot be cured but the disease can be successfully managed. The prognosis is good for most cats.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.