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Feline Asthma

That Hacking Cough Might Not be a Hairball


A severe attack of feline asthma may sometimes be discounted as just another hairball attack, or possibly choking on a bit of food. The cat will cough for awhile, the concerned caregiver will comfort him, then he will appear to be fine. But symptoms like these need to be checked out by a veterinarian, to eliminate asthma. You may be sent home with a bottle of hairball remedy, but if asthma is the diagnosis, you will learn ways of managing it.

What is feline asthma?

Much like human asthma, feline asthma is an allergen-caused upper respiratory condition that causes distressed breathing. It is also called bronchitis or feline bronchial disease. Bronchial spasms cause the individual bronchi to constrict or tighten, and the resultant swelling of surrounding tissues puts the cat into a full-blown asthma attack.

Human victims of asthma will know exactly what an asthma attack feels like, as coughing quickly ensues, in an effort to expel the excess mucous.

What allergens are more likely to trigger an asthma attack in cats?

Again, these are many of the same allergens responsible for human asthma attacks:
  • Smoke
  • Mildew or Mold
  • Household Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Pollens
  • Cat Litter
  • Cold, Moist Air
Asthmatic cats are also subject to exercise-related attacks, and stress can either cause or exacerbate a feline asthma attack. For that reason, you should always try to remain as calm as possible when your cat suffers an attack, because you can "telegraph" your stress to your cat.

How can I recognize an asthma attack in my cat?

Early symptoms may be difficult to detect. You may hear a faint wheezing, which is more audible after vigorous exercise. Your cat may seem to tire easily. Labored breathing may proceed a serious attack.

A full-blown asthma attack may at first resemble a cat trying to cough up a hairball, or possibly choking on food. However, the body posture is somewhat different. With asthma, the cat's body will be hunched lower to the ground and his neck and head will be extended out and down in an effort to clear the airway of mucous. The "gagging" may also be accompanied by a typical coughing sound, and possibly sneezing. The cat may or may not expel foamy mucous.

These serious attacks may not happen frequently, which makes it easy to write them off as "just a hairball." Actually, they can be life-threatening, and a cat in a full-blown attack should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Even a cat showing one or two of the early symptoms should be examined. Once diagnosed, there are things you can do to help your cat during one of these attacks.

How does the veterinarian diagnose feline asthma?

Other diseases share many of the same symptoms as feline asthma, including Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, a serious disease in itself. Your veterinarian will use several diagnostic tests to eliminate those conditions. The most common diagnostic tools are:
  • Blood Tests
    These are the quickest and easiest, and will detect infection, which often accompanies asthmatic bronchitis. They will detect macrophages, esoinophils, neutrophils, and mast cells, which are types of blood cells that help constitute the immune system. And blood work is also useful in eliminating other diseases with the same symptoms.
  • Chest XRay
    Also called a thoracic, xray, it will disclose abnormalities, such as areas of chronic irritation, as caused by infection, a flattened diaphragm, or unusual fluid accumulation. Evidence of heart disease may also be seen. This would not necessarily eliminate asthma, as the two sometimes go hand-in-hand. Your veterinarian may want to send the xray to a specialist for consultation.

    The xray is done in two stages: Lateral, with the cat on his side, and ventrodorsal,lying on his back with limbs extended out of the way. Although many cats may accede to these positions, others may need a small dose of anesthesia to perform an xray. Otherwise, it is harmless and painless.

  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage
    This is an extremely useful procedure and in itself, perfectly safe. BAL, as it is called, is performed by inserting an endotracheal tube into the trachea under general anasthesia, then fluids present in the airways of the lungs are extracted through this tube for examination.

    Aside from asthma, the BAL may diagnose other conditions of the lungs. In a study done in Barcelona of 26 cats, two were found to have Toxoplasma gondii cysts, two showed evidence of carcinoma, and 18 were determined to be related to asthma or infectious bronchitis.

    The down side of BAL is that it requires a general anesthesia, counter-indicated in a cat with severe respiratory distress.

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