Feline asthma is one of the most common conditions affecting the airways in cats. The symptoms can be distressing, for both cat and owner. The good news is that, while it can’t be cured, asthma can usually be well controlled with long-term management. Management involves medication, alongside environmental and lifestyle changes. Let’s take a look at the best cat asthma treatments.


What is feline asthma?

Feline (or cat) asthma is a disease of the lower airways. The small airways (bronchioles) of the lungs become narrowed (constricted) and swollen (inflamed). It is thought that asthma is triggered by a cat’s immune system overreacting to inhaled particles (allergens), such as dust, pollen or smoke. This leads to a cascade of inflammation, constriction and excessive mucous production. All of this causes the airways to become narrowed, making it harder for the cat to breathe.


Cat asthma symptoms

Because asthma narrows the airways, asthmatic cats will make a wheezing noise when they breathe in, and then show an increase in effort as they breathe out. So, typical symptoms of feline asthma include:

–       Wheezing

–       Increased effort to breathe (you may see their tummy moving in and out, known as ‘abdominal effort’)

–       Quicker breathing

–       Coughing

The cough with feline asthma is quite characteristic and often sounds like the cat is trying to bring something up (like a fur ball). The cat will often stretch their neck out long, and low to the ground.

In my experience as a vet, owners often unknowingly delay seeking treatment, as they believe their cat is just trying to bring up a fur ball. So, if your cat develops a new cough or develops any changes in their breathing, the sooner you see your vet the better. It’s a good idea to video your cat coughing and show it to your vet.


What is the standard cat asthma treatment?

One of the most common questions I get asked is “do cats with asthma need medication?”. The simple answer is yes! Most cats with asthma need ongoing, lifelong treatment. Some cats with mild asthma only need cat asthma medication when they are experiencing a flare-up of symptoms or an asthma attack. If asthma is left untreated, the long-term (chronic) inflammation can cause irreversible changes in the airways, which worsens the outlook (prognosis) for the cat long-term.


  • Emergency treatment at the vets

If your cat has a severe asthma attack, whether they haven’t been diagnosed yet or they are already on cat asthma medication, they will most likely need to be treated at the vet. This treatment often includes a stay in the hospital for:

–       A mild sedative, to help your cat relax. Stress and anxiety will make your cat’s breathing worse.

–       Oxygen therapy, through a special mask or chamber.

–       A short-acting bronchodilator medicine, which acts to open up (dilate) the airways. This is usually given via injection, as it works fast this way and causes the least stress.

Your vet will also treat any secondary conditions. For example, excess mucous in the airways can lead to a bacterial infection. Your vet may also carry out some investigations, once your cat is stable.


  • Emergency treatment at home

Once your cat is diagnosed with asthma, your vet may prescribe medicine to use at home in case they have a flare-up of symptoms. This is usually a short-acting bronchodilator medicine, which dilates (or opens up) the bronchioles (small airways). In an emergency situation at home, you would struggle to give any medicines to your cat by mouth without making their symptoms worse. For this reason, the bronchodilator is usually given via an inhaler, with a special mask and spacer chamber attached.

If you suspect your cat is having an asthma attack at home, you should follow your vet’s advice (or call your vet for advice) straight away.


  • Long-term management

There are two main types of medicine used for the long-term management of cat asthma

  1. Corticosteroids. Steroids act to reduce the inflammation in the airways, making the airway wider and helping to prevent harmful long-term changes to the airway. The long-term possible side effects of steroids include weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes.
  2. Bronchodilators. These open up the airways, or dilate them. Bronchodilators are never given on their own to treat asthma, since they do not treat the inflammation that asthma causes. Leaving the inflammation untreated can cause irreversible changes to the airways, meaning a poorer long-term prognosis. So bronchodilators are usually used alongside steroids, often as and when needed.

Both of these can be given by mouth, or via a cat asthma inhaler, each with its own pros and cons.

Some people find giving cat asthma medication by mouth easy, by hiding it in food, for example. However, many people really struggle with this, as cats are often discerning creatures and will not touch food with medicine hidden inside. Giving steroids by mouth repeatedly or over a length of time can cause side effects, and isn’t suitable for all cats, such as those with diabetes or heart disease. When given by mouth the medicines are cheaper.

Giving medicine via inhaler is ‘off license’ in cats. This means either the drug itself is not licensed for use in cats, or it is not licensed to be given via an inhaler. In other words, there is no inhaler specifically made for cats. However, giving medicine via an inhaler can dramatically reduce the risk of side effects, since it is being delivered directly to the target area (where it is needed) and is not absorbed into the cat’s body. Because the medication goes straight to the target area (i.e. the lungs), a lower dose is often needed. Most cats will learn to accept an inhaler if it is introduced slowly and correctly, with plenty of positive reinforcement. In fact, many cat owners find it easier than giving tablets. One article for The Cornell University Feline Health Center states that “experts have come to favour administering corticosteroid drugs … and bronchodilators … as inhalants”.

It’s important to remember that you should never use your own inhaler on your cat. Some types of human inhalers are not suitable for cats, and you should only give what your vet has prescribed.


How can I treat my cat’s asthma at home?

While your cat is likely to need medication, there are things you can change at home to help ease your cat’s asthma. Avoiding possible triggers and keeping your cat generally healthy is key, with measures such as:

–       Make sure your cat is a healthy weight since obesity is known to worsen asthma symptoms

–       Keep your cat away from cigarette smoke

–       Don’t light candles, fires or incense around your cat

–       Avoid the use of aerosols around your cat, and ventilate any room you do use them in

–       Avoid house plants with high pollen

–       Keep your cat out of bedrooms, where dust mites and dander tend to be the highest

–       Use dust-free, unscented cat litter

–       Minimise stress.

Taking your cat for regular vet checks can help to make sure they stay generally healthy, are on the right medication, and at the right dose.


Take Home Message

It can feel very daunting to have a cat diagnosed with asthma. Feline asthma is a serious condition, which in a worst-case scenario can be fatal. While there is no cure, cat asthma can usually be very well managed with long-term medication. There are a few cat asthma treatment options and different ways that you can give them to your cat. Your vet will advise you on the best medicines for your cat’s asthma, and the best way to give them.

Find out more about cat asthma medication here.

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