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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I read your website for the most part. I’m little tired from the heat. But my search started because I was trying to find what exactly theophylline does. Phelonius, my beautiful black Bombay cat, has full blown asthma. Even the vet hasn’t had a case this bad, so I’ve been looking on the Internet. I notice some of you are black with yellow eyes — are you Bombays, too?

Anyway, Phelonius was fine for a while, but when I first got him, I did not take him outdoors. Could be a root cause of his asthma? I adopted his brother, Lord Farquaad,a month later, and Farquaad has no problems.

About a year after I got him, Phelonius developed an upper respiratory infection. The vet went through the standard protocol — antibiotics, etc — but he got worse and had to be checked in. He received a steroid, more antibiotics, theophylline, etc… That steroid was very effective, but it’s made him gain a lot of weight.

About six months letter, Phelonius had another episode, and then just about a month ago, same scenario. He definitely has asthma — he went into labored breathing and we rushed him to the vet. This time he was slow to respond to the treatment. My husband ran home and got his Albuterol inhaler. We tried to blow towards him and Phelonius responded faster. He got better within the hour.

After that, everything was fine. But now Phelonius is coughing again — every morning like clockwork — and it progressively gets worse as before. So now I’m wondering what caused his problems and what I can do to solve them!

Here are some of my thoughts: When I took him in, didn’t expose him to the outdoors right off. I believe his immune system didn’t get strong, whereas his brother was exposed to outdoors longer, so he is okay. I know environment can play a role (carpets with dust bunnies, rug fibers, etc., mattresses, etc.) I will be removing the carpets this year. He did respond well to Newton’s Homeopathic Cough-Asthma Medicine Drops. He doesn’t respond so well to them now; perhaps he’s built up a tolerance. It’s very frustrating. It’s been very hot this summer (it’s in the 90s as I write this).

Thank you for any advice,
~Jennifer (Phelonius’s mama)

Siouxsie: Well, Jennifer, we’ll do our best to help you. Asthma is just as scary for a feline sufferer as it is for a person.

Thomas: It’s not surprising that one kitty brother has asthma while the other does not. It happens that way in human families, too; I’m sure you know families where one kid has asthma and the others don’t.

Dahlia: Some cats are simply more sensitive to allergens in their environment. Part of this might be due to genetics, and part of it may be due to early exposure and oversensitization.

Siouxsie: You wrote this letter at a time when it was extremely hot where you lived. Generally speaking, all people and animals with respiratory problems have a harder time when it’s very hot and humid, when ozone levels are high, or where weather conditions trap pollutants near the ground.

Thomas: You mentioned that your husband uses an inhaler. If he has asthma or COPD, maybe he was having more difficulty during that time of high heat and humidity too.

Dahlia: We’re quite sure that keeping Phelonius indoors when he was small didn’t make him more prone to develop asthma. We were all indoor-only cats at the beginning of our lives, and none of us got asthma.

Siouxsie: Asthma results from an extreme allergic reaction. And the reason why animals (and people) develop allergies is because their immune systems are oversensitized to common things in the environment.

Thomas: You’re doing the right thing by removing old carpets and trying to rid your environment of objects that trap dust mites. You might also try buying air purifiers and a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filtration, to eliminate any allergens in the air. And of course, if anyone in your home smokes, they should do so outdoors.

Dahlia: Make sure you use unscented cat litter. Many of the fragrances in scented litters are extremely strong, and the chemicals used to make those fragrances can cause your asthmatic cat to have a full-blown attack if he’s already vulnerable due to other junk in the air. The same goes for plug-in air fresheners, deodorizing sprays, scented laundry detergents and fabric softeners, and other such things: Get rid of them. Unscented products work just as well and they won’t make Phelonius sick. All these things will probably make your husband feel better, too!

Thomas: Some holistic veterinarians believe that food allergies can also cause asthma symptoms. Wherever a cat (or a person) has an inborn weakness in their body, an allergic reaction can manifest. So we’d recommend that with the help of your vet or a holistic practitioner, you modify your cats’ diet to eliminate artificially colored foods or foods with chemical preservatives and additives.

Dahlia: In practice, that generally means switching from a brand you find at the supermarket to what’s referred to as “premium” foods. Veterinarians also sell “allergy diet” foods, which are made of things cats’ bodies generally don’t overreact to. These foods cost more than the ones you find in the supermarket, but they’ll make up for it with savings on vet bills. It’s best to switch foods gradually, though. Some cats don’t react well to sudden food changes.

Siouxsie: We’re not exactly sure what theophylline does. But the standard treatment for asthma attacks involves medicine that decreases the swelling of the “air tubes” in the lungs and medicine that relaxes the little muscles along the air tubes that are in spasm. Fast-acting steroids decrease the swelling of the air tubes, so we think theophylline relaxes the muscle spasms.

Thomas: If you really want to know for sure, ask your vet. He or she will almost certainly be glad to tell you what each medicine does. You can also do an Internet search for theophylline, and you should be able to find the information sheet given to patients who are prescribed the drug.

Dahlia: There are a number of holistic treatments that can help cats suffering from asthma. Acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine, for example, have been successful in treating asthma and other allergic symptoms.

Siouxsie: You mentioned that you’d given Phelonius a homeopathic cough/asthma medicine and that it had been effective for a while. Generally a homeopathic veterinarian will prescribe a “constitutional remedy” designed to strengthen the cat’s overall body and immune system. This, along with changes in diet and environment, can be very helpful for a cat with asthma.

Thomas: We’d recommend that you ask your vet if there are any holistic vets in your area, and how he or she feels about working with a holistic vet to help Phelonius to stay as healthy as possible. Most conventional vets these days are pretty open-minded about working with holistic practitioners.

Dahlia: The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association maintains an online directory listing of their members in the US and Canada.

Siouxsie: We feel that chronic illnesses are most successfully treated with a combination of conventional and holistic medicine.

Thomas: Good luck to you and Phelonius. Please let us know how things turn out!

Dahlia: Oh, and you asked if Siouxsie and I are Bombay cats? Well, Mama says we’re Bombays in everything but the official paperwork. Mama adopted me from an animal shelter when I was just a kitten, and Siouxsie’s kittymom was a stray cat. But we sure are gorgeous, aren’t we? Of course, I’m the prettiest …

Siouxsie: Listen, you skinny little runt, I’m the Top Cat and Queen of All Eastern Cats, and you’d better respect my authority!

Dahlia: Mama! Siouxsie called me a runt!

Siouxsie: You little … just ’cause I’m old doesn’t mean I can’t kick your flank!

Dahlia: Eep!

Thomas: Well, now that Siouxsie’s chasing Dahlia around the yard, I guess we’ll wrap it up for this week.

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