The most common first clinical sign is a wheeze or a persistent cough.
The most common first clinical sign is a wheeze or a persistent cough.

Adonis was a magnificent four-year-old Seal Point Siamese cat.

He was brought in as an emergency case to the surgery as he had been wheezing and he was now clearly having some difficulty breathing.

His owner was understandably distraught, and she said: “It is just like an asthma attack.” In fact, that was exactly what Adonis was having, and he had to be admitted to the surgery for hospitalisation and emergency treatments.

Feline asthma is a lower airway disease that bears many similarities to asthma in humans. Affected animals can become sensitised to “allergens” that are present in their immediate environment.

Suspected triggers include pollens, fungal spores, house dust mites, cigarette smoke, dusty cat litter, household cleaning products, diffusers, and even some food allergens.

Affected cats produce IgE antibodies against these molecules.

When they are later exposed to these same allergens, they have a Type 1 hypersensitivity response with a sudden inflammatory response localised in the bronchi and bronchioles of their lung fields, resulting in a constriction of their airways and asthmatic symptoms.

Most affected cats are young to middle aged, between the ages of two and eight years old. Certain cat breeds such as Siamese and Himalayan cats seem to be more predisposed.

The most common first clinical sign is a wheeze or a persistent cough. Some cats can have mild respiratory signs for several weeks or months prior to presentation. The signs of asthma tend to be recurrent, although some cats present in acute respiratory distress without any prior clinical signs.

There is no single test to accurately diagnose asthma. Other conditions which mimic these symptoms, including heart disease and respiratory infections, will initially need to be ruled out. Your vet will first listen to your cat’s chest with a stethoscope, and blood tests may be taken to look for a high concentration of white blood cells.

A chest X-ray will be taken to closely look at the cat’s lung fields. For a confirmed diagnosis, further tests may be done.

Emergency treatment, if required, involves providing urgent emergency oxygen therapy, and corticosteroid and broncho-dilatory treatments. Long-term treatments depend on the severity and persistence of the clinical signs.

Oral medications and inhaler treatments can be given.

Worming and antibiotic treatments may be given to rule out underlying parasitism and a secondary bronchitis infection.

Eliminating any likely underlying allergic cause is also important, such as cleaning pet bedding and sleeping areas, eliminating dusty cat litter, cleaning house vents, replacing filters, eliminating passive cigarette smoke, and restricting the cat to certain areas of the house to avoid any dust in the cat’s atmosphere.

With diligent treatment most cats do respond favourably. Untreated cats can develop irreversible chronic bronchitis and accompanying lung changes.

Thankfully, Adonis responded well to corticosteroid treatments and a twice daily inhaler. His owner had to be vigilant in keeping his immediate home area dust free, and he was no longer allowed into the bedrooms, where house dust mites could easily be found.

If you have noticed any symptoms of recurrent wheeziness or coughing in your cat, contact your vet clinic for an initial check-up appointment.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets in Inverness.

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