Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My kitty has been diagnosed with asthma. I’ve been giving him prednisone for a short time but he is still wheezing. Is there something else I can do for him?
Siouxsie: Asthma is a frightening illness, both for the cat and for the cat’s human caretaker.
Thomas: As you’ve probably been told, feline asthma is similar to human asthma and is treated in similar ways. But vets haven’t found a 100% correlation between human and feline asthma.
Dahlia: Basically, asthma is a condition that occurs when a cat’s respiratory tract overreacts to an environmental stimulus. The air passages in the lungs constrict, making breathing more difficult, and sometimes mucus also builds up. This airway constriction and mucus buildup is what causes the traditional wheezing you hear in an asthma attack.
Siouxsie: The real problem in some cats is that air gets trapped IN the air passages and can’t be exhaled, and this leads to a sensation of the lungs being full but still being without adequate oxygen. Your cat will understandably be very frightened because he can’t breathe properly, and his fear and agitation and exacerbate the symptoms of the asthma attack.
Thomas: There are a number of things that can trigger asthma attacks including smoke from cigarettes, incense, or fireplaces; fragrances such as potpourris and air fresheners, litterbox fragrances or detergents; chemicals such as those found in new carpets and paint; environmental factors such as cold air, pollen, and mold or mildew; overexertion; stress from moving or vet visits; and excess weight.
Dahlia: The best thing you can do for your cat is to remove as many of these triggers from your home environment as possible. Use unscented detergents and cat litter, get rid of your plug-in air fresheners, don’t use spray air fresheners or sanitizers, and if you need to replace your carpeting, consider going with tile or wood to avoid the chemical outgassing that occurs when new carpet is installed. And of course it goes without saying that people shouldn’t smoke in your home.
Siouxsie: Keep your cat’s stress level as low as possible and if he needs to lose weight, give him consistent but not high-energy exercise for 10 to 15 minutes at a time (depending on his tolerance) to help him burn calories without having an attack.
Thomas: According to our research, corticosteroids like prednisone are the primary treatment for cats with asthma. Generally cats don’t react very well to fast-acting inhalers (the “puff” scares them and they can’t be told when to inhale), but equipment is available to help cats gain the benefits of inhaled asthma medications.
Dahlia: One thing you should know is that heartworm or lungworm infection and cardiomyopathy can have symptoms that mimic asthma. We assume your vet ruled this out with your cat, but other readers should know that coughing and wheezing can be caused by these parasites as well as asthma. A chest X-ray is the primary diagnostic tool used to determine whether a cat has asthma.
Siouxsie: Herbal and holistic treatments are available to manage feline asthma, too. We’ve seen a couple of websites selling products that are supposed to manage asthma, but we’d feel a lot better if you were to consult a holistic veterinarian before pursuing any herbal or homeopathic treatments. Asthma is a very serious illness and it needs to be monitored by professionals in order to keep your cat healthy and give him the maximum quality of life.
Thomas: If you’re interested in finding a holistic practitioner to work with you and your regular vet, the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association has a directory of its members in the US and Canada. Other parts of the world have similar organizations which you can use to locate a practitioner.
Siouxsie: We’ve found some websites that could be very helpful to you in learning more about feline asthma and finding support. Fritz the Brave is a website with comprehensive information on feline asthma and listings of online support groups for caretakers of cats with asthma.
Thomas: Feline Asthma dot org has a good amount of information on the disease and various treatments. And the Mar Vista Vet page on feline asthma has a basic outline of what the disease is — it may be pretty much what your vet has already told you, but the Mar Vista Vet site is a good reference with basic information on a number of diseases in dogs and cats.
Dahlia: Good luck to you and your kitty, Kelly, and please let us know how things go.