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Asthma and Bronchitis in Cats

My cat started having coughing spells. I thought she was trying to cough up a hairball. My veterinarian has diagnosed feline asthma and bronchitis. I didn’t know cats could have such a thing.


Feline asthma affects a fair number of cats and is often associated with bronchitis. “Asthma” is technically an acute or chronic inflammation of the airway associated with several physiologic effects including:

The term “feline bronchitis” describes the coughing and/or wheezing that comes from inflammation in the lower airway. Asthma and bronchitis are typically considered as two parts of the same syndrome.

If the cat’s airways are sensitive to certain stimuli, exposure to those agents can cause an inflammatory response and the cat will experience bronchial spasms, increased mucus production, and possible accumulation of mucus in the airways. Inability to clear the bronchi of mucus can lead to airway obstruction and may leave the cat susceptible to secondary respiratory infections. Chronic airway obstruction may trap air in the tiny lung passages called alveoli, leading to over-inflation and lung damage.

Coughing and respiratory distress (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, open-mouth breathing, etc.) are the most common signs of feline asthma and bronchitis. Coughing is a significant finding since there are relatively few causes of coughing in cats. Coughing cats assume a squatting position with the neck extended. These cats will also generally wheeze - sometimes loud enough to hear if you are close to the cat.

Are some cats more likely to get asthma?

Feline asthma and bronchitis are seen most commonly in cats from two to eight years of age, and the Siamese cat seems to be at higher risk for developing this disease syndrome. Overweight and obese cats are at greater risk for developing chronic respiratory disease, and one study suggests it may be more common in females.

What causes feline asthma and bronchitis?

The actual cause of the inflammation associated with feline asthma and bronchitis is unknown. It is better to consider triggers that enhance the inflammation and cause asthma and bronchitis signs. These triggers may include:

How is asthma diagnosed?

Diagnosing asthma and bronchitis in cats requires ruling out other diseases that cause respiratory signs. These diseases include infectious pneumonia (fungal, bacterial, parasitic), feline heartworm disease (cats are aberrant hosts for the canine heartworm disease parasite), primary lung parasites, and tumor disease (either a lung tumor, or one that has metastasized or spread to the lungs from elsewhere in the body).

"Diagnosing asthma and bronchitis in cats
requires ruling out other diseases
that cause respiratory signs."

Diagnostic tests will include a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistries, fecal exam, and urinalysis. These tests will assess the general health of the cat and may provide clues as to the underlying cause. One type of white blood cell, the eosinophil, is commonly associated with allergic events or parasitic disease and its presence supports a tentative diagnosis of asthma. In some cases, special tests will be performed on stool samples, looking for evidence of lungworms. Additional diagnostic tests may include the following:

In most cases, a single underlying cause cannot be identified, despite a complete and thorough diagnostic work-up. Even when the underlying cause is not identified, many cats can achieve a reasonable quality of life with medical management.

How is asthma treated?

Once other diseases are either identified and treated, or ruled out, treatment for asthma and bronchitis can proceed. Treatment of this disease syndrome is best considered “management” as a cure rarely occurs. Successful management of feline asthma and bronchitis typically involves some combination of the following:

Will my cat be cured of asthma and bronchitis?

Cats with feline asthma and bronchitis are rarely cured. The goal of treatment is to lessen the severity and frequency of the "attacks" and improve overall quality of life. Most cats with feline asthma and bronchitis can live very full and active lives.

Ernest Ward, DVM & Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP
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