[FIRST THINGS FIRST: if your cat is having what appears to be an asthma attack, TAKE YOUR CAT TO THE VET. Read this article later. Feline asthma attacks can be deadly, and you need a professional opinion on your cat’s condition.]
Asthma – it’s the worst, right? No, seriously, it’s the worst. Asthma is a condition that closes your airways and leaves you gasping for air, and is often exacerbated by our smoggy modern world. It’s increasingly affecting our kids, and it doesn’t stop there – our pets can be hit with asthma attacks too.
My husband and I adopted Tiger Jack, our enormous fluffy orange tabby, when he was about six months old. About a year after bringing him home, we were scared out of our wits by his first asthma attack. This is how it went down: he hunkered down in distress with a few sharp coughs. Within seconds, he stretched out his neck, mouth open, and wheezed. His breathing was badly labored; he shied away from touch. This continued for several painfully long seconds, until he gradually began to breathe easier and the attack tapered off with a few more coughs. Then he was fine, all “whatever, man” and “oooo, right there” to our desperate pettings as we checked his condition.
We were caught flat-footed, and freaked right the hell out. We were helpless, uninformed, and we needed to know our cat was okay. Immediately.
I’m here to tell you: don’t freak out. Just read on, and I’ll describe this awful condition. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also often treatable. Cats with asthma regularly lead full, happy, long, and normal lives! Keep calm, see a vet as necessary, and follow your treatment plan.
WHAT FELINE ASTHMA LOOKS LIKE
There are several common signs to look for when you suspect asthma in cats, and Tiger Jack hit basically all of them in the example above. Let me break them down for you:
Open-mouthed, rapid and/or difficulty in breathing.
Hunkered down and neck extended posture.
Vomiting a foaming mucus.
Blue discoloration around lips and nose.
Weakness or lethargy, or poor appetite.
If your cat is doing these things, take them to the vet.
WHAT FELINE ASTHMA IS, AND WHAT TRIGGERS IT
Just like in humans, feline asthma is a narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult. This generally occurs thanks to inflammation or allergic reactions – something triggers the reaction, the lower respiratory tract inflames and constricts, and boom! Asthma attack. You can find great, detailed reading about the condition at Cornell Feline Health Center’s site.
Also just like in humans, there are a variety of triggers, from environmental pollutants and irritants to food allergies. Pinpointing the exact trigger is either an extensive process of elimination, or basically impossible. I know, it sucks, and Star Trek’s Mr. Bones would be as disappointed in our veterinary medicine as he is in our people medicine. But! There are a few broad culprits we can list that are best to avoid around an asthmatic cat:
Smoke from cigarettes, incense, or – well, anything that puts smoke in the air. (Even non-asthmatic cats shouldn’t be around cigarette smoke, c’mon.)
Aerosols, especially air fresheners, cleaning chemicals, perfumes, hairspray or treatments, etc. (If you can’t do without your leave-in conditioner, or have some cleaning to do, make sure your cat’s not in the area and that the area is well-ventilated afterwards.)
Scented candles – the fragrances released can be irritating even for humans, so wave Yankee Candle goodbye.
Particulates in the air – from cat litter that’s too fine to dust to mold to pollen to smog. (Stupid microscopic crap, messing up our lungs. AND OUR PET’S LUNGS.)
Food allergies, so be sure to note what food you’ve given your cat recently when looking for asthma attack patterns. If you’re half-asleep when you feed them at oh-geez-why-o’clock, leave the empty can where you can note down the flavor combination later.
HOW FELINE ASTHMA IS DIAGNOSED AND TREATMENT OPTIONS
When you first suspect asthma in your cat, take them to see your vet.
Make sure your vet is a good one – when Tiger Jack had his first asthma attack, my husband and I had just moved to a completely new (and large) city. The first vet we tried in the area did a cursory examination of Tiger Jack, said he would lead a short, brutish life, and that we’d best put him down immediately. NOT A GOOD VET. If a vet does this? GO SEE ANOTHER VET.
(Let me repeat what I said above: Cats with asthma regularly lead full, happy, long, and normal lives! Tiger Jack’s asthma is considered mild to moderate; he was maybe a year and a half old when diagnosed. He is now over eight years old. Not all vets are created equal; the first one we took him to was a careless jerkface. Careless jerkfaces do not deserve to pet your cats or get your money.)
Any quality vet will do a complete exam – they’ll check your cat’s heart and lungs. They may do x-rays or labs, to look at their lungs or test for allergies. The vet may need a fecal sample to rule out lungworms. If the diagnosis is asthma, treatment depends on severity and frequency. Mild to moderate asthma may be treated at home with corticosteroids – traditionally administered in tablets. However, there are inhalers that are much more effective for your cat, with less side effects from long-term steroid use. Talk to your vet about the various treatment methods and costs. They’ll help you make the best decision.
Whew. Okay, I know that was a lot. And I know it’s a scary world after your cat has their first asthma attack. Just take a deep breath, imagine you’re holding my hand, and listen: you are not alone. There are 74-96 million domestic cats in the USA, and almost a million of them have feline asthma. Most lead long, normal lives. Do not freak out. See your vet. Minimize triggers. Follow your treatment plan. With these steps, we should all be breathing easier in no time.