Asthma is a common lung condition in cats and is becoming more frequently diagnosed. In asthma, the airways within the lungs become inflamed and hyper-reactive. The resultant swelling and spasms can make breathing difficult, especially during exertion. Unfortunately, because cats are often sedentary in nature, and because they are experts at hiding illness in general, they often show few clinical signs of this potentially serious disease until the problem is quite advanced.
The most common finding seen is a dry cough where the cat lies low to the ground with his/her head and neck extended. Many owners misinterpret this as hairballs and do not seek veterinary attention as their pet often seems perfectly normal otherwise. However, left untreated, asthma can result in long term, irreversible scarring of the lungs, heart failure, herniation of abdominal organs into the chest cavity, and/or potentially fatal asthma attacks. Because the lungs become compromised, secondary infections can also occur, further impairing lung function.
Diagnosis is based on history, chest auscultation with the stethoscope, x-rays, and sometimes blood work and other testing. A video of a coughing episode, emailed or brought in to the veterinarian, can also be very helpful. Because the signs of asthma can be similar to those of other diseases, it is important to confirm the diagnosis prior to making treatment decisions.
Treatment is aimed at reducing the inflammation within the airways and minimizing any airway muscle spasming that may be occurring. Steroid inhalers (like those used for people) and sometimes, oral steroid anti-inflammatories, are necessary to address the former problem, and bronchodilating medications control the latter. Antibiotics are also prescribed if bacterial infection is suspected. Because asthma is chronic and lifelong, it must be treatment in most cases. However, it is also usually highly effective and extremely rewarding, with many owners reporting that their cats have greater energy and vitality and a happier, more interactive demeanor once their asthma is under control. Early detection and treatment, as with many diseases, greatly increase the chance of a positive outcome.