Another Furball? It Might Be Feline Asthma

Guest post by Andrea Tasi, VMD

Has your cat been coughing? Watch the video below and you may recognize that sound. Many people assume that the cat is trying to cough up a hairball and don’t realize that their cat could have asthma. Untreated, asthma can progress and even be fatal. But, like human asthmatics, cats can be treated and the disease can be managed.

It is estimated that about 1% of cats suffer from asthma. Siamese, Burmese and other Oriental breeds show a greater incidence, but any breed can have asthma. It usually first occurs in young to middle-aged cats between the ages of two and eight.

It is widely recognized that asthma attacks can be triggered by allergens in the environment such as pollens, dust, smoke, fumes, mold, fragrances and aerosols. Heat, cold, stress and exertion can also trigger attacks.

What is Feline Asthma?

Feline asthma is a disorder of the lower airways, called bronchi and bronchioles, in which inflammation causes increased production of mucus, spasms of the airways and difficulty moving air out of the airways. It is considered to be an immune-mediated condition, which means that the inflammation is triggered by some allergic or over-active response of the cat’s own immune system.

What are the Symptoms of Feline Asthma?

Different cats may be affected in different ways, but the most common symptom is a wheezing or gagging cough, often called a hairball-type cough. In my professional experience however, hairballs do not cause coughing, as they are gastrointestinal and not respiratory in origin. Hairballs can cause retching, gagging and vomiting. With an asthmatic cough, most cats will stretch their necks out, get in a hunkered down posture and then cough in either a dry or moist sounding fashion. They may stick their tongues out a bit when coughing. Often it sounds and seems as if they are coughing some mucus up and then swallowing it.

Other symptoms may include decreased activity, becoming winded by normal activity, increased rate and effort of breathing and even open-mouth breathing in severely affected patients who are having trouble moving air out of their lungs.

Feline asthma in its most severe form can cause death by asphyxiation: the cat simply can’t breathe.

How is Feline Asthma Diagnosed?

A cat presenting with a history of coughing, wheezing and/or respiratory difficulty will usually need the following tests to determine what is going on:

• A thorough physical examination, including listening carefully to the lungs and heart.

• Chest radiographs, commonly known as x-rays. These help rule out other causes of respiratory symptoms like heart enlargement, fluid in or around the lungs, tumors or pneumonia. Many cats with feline asthma have prominent airways and hyperinflated lungs, which means too much air is trapped in the lungs. It is important to note that cats can be severely asthmatic and have normal chest radiographs.

 • A complete blood count: a blood test which looks at red and white blood cell numbers and helps determine if a patient is responding to inflammation or infection. Many cats with feline asthma have an increased number of eosinophils, a white blood cell type that responds to allergic and parasitic inflammation.

• A heartworm test. Heartworm disease can mimic the symptoms of feline asthma.

• A fecal test for intestinal parasites. Some intestinal parasites have life stages that migrate through the lungs and can cause inflammation and respiratory symptoms.

In general, the diagnosis of asthma is made by ruling out other causes of coughing and respiratory difficulty, as there is no one test that determines with 100% assurance that a cat has asthma or not.

How is Feline Asthma Treated?

Conventional medical treatment of feline asthma is based upon two main drug types:

• Corticosteroids: This class of drugs is anti-inflammatory in nature. Oral prednisone or prednisolone, and/or inhaled forms of corticosteroids are used to reduce the inflammation in the airways. Side effects of corticosteroids can include increased thirst and urination, increased appetite, weight gain, diabetes, lowered resistance to infection, and even behavioral changes.

• Bronchodilators: This class of drugs helps open up the airways. Both oral and inhaled forms of bronchodilators are used. Side effects are generally minimal with bronchodilators, but these drugs should never be used alone, as that can actually worsen the condition. Special inhalant masks are available for cats to administer these medications.

• Several other drugs, such as antihistamines and anti-leukotrienes, are also used by some veterinarians. Holistic veterinarians may use alternative medical therapies to treat some asthmatic cats.

If a cat is in an emergency situation in a veterinary clinic, oxygen therapy will also be used.

How Does Diet Relate to Feline Asthma?

In over two decades of feline practice, I have attended many continuing education seminars on feline asthma and rarely heard diet discussed as a potential cause or trigger for the condition.

However, I have had several clients who, on their own initiative, changed what they fed their cats and found that the symptoms of asthma were either greatly reduced or eliminated. What was the change they all made? They removed all dry food and all grain-based products from their cat’s diet.

Most did this by simply switching to grain-free canned cat foods. Some used balanced commercially prepared or home-made grain-free, raw meat cat foods, either as the only food fed or in combination with some grain-free canned foods. After observing this effect, I incorporated diet changes into my case management of cats with asthma. I began to see many cases where my patients no longer needed medication — or much reduced doses — to control their asthma symptoms. It is important to note that not all cases of asthma will improve with the elimination of dry food and grains. But it is worth considering this change as a much less intrusive method of reducing or controlling symptoms. I have never observed a worsening of a cat’s asthma from a gradual and nutritionally balanced diet change.

Why does this diet change help some cats? It is my opinion that the processed and fractionated grain products in many cat foods are strong triggers for allergic or overactive inflammatory responses in some cats. Remove these triggers, and these cats get better or are even cured.

If you have an asthmatic cat on medication and are interested in this approach, you must do this in consultation with your veterinarian. Do not, under any circumstances, simply stop giving your cat his/her medications.

If your cat is on high doses of corticosteroid drugs, it is also important to remember that these drugs can be suppressive to the immune system, rendering a cat more susceptible to infection. In these cases, I would advocate using either a canned or home cooked grain-free, nutritionally balanced food, not a raw diet.

Andrea Tasi, VMD owns and operates Just Cats, Naturally, a housecall based, feline-exclusive practice dedicated to the holistic, individualized approach to each cat. Dr. Tasi uses classical  homeopathy, nutritional therapy, and behavior/environment-related techniques to help healthy cats stay well and help ill cats regain their health.

This article originally appeared on the Feline Nutrition website, and is re-posted here with their permission. The Feline Nutrition is dedicated to providing thoroughly researched information on feline health and nutrition. If you care about cats and their health, please consider joining the society. Membership is free, and a growing membership base will help the organization spread the word about species-appropriate nutrition for cats.

30 Comments on Another Furball? It Might Be Feline Asthma

  1. tris
    December 24, 2016 at 4:51 am (2 years ago)

    Good pm Sir, I’m from the Philippines and I would like to inquiry if you do shipping especially with the spirit essences

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 24, 2016 at 6:20 am (2 years ago)

      Please contact Spirit Essences directly. They do ship internationally, and can advise you about shipping to the Phillipines. bit.ly/SpiritEssences

      Reply
  2. Ann
    March 11, 2016 at 6:04 pm (2 years ago)

    Very interesting posts thank you. May I ask when you say no dry food is it OK to give dry food that has no grains since now they have many dry formulas that have no grain in them or does it have to be wet food only. Thank you for your thoughts and time
    Ann

    Reply
      • Ann
        March 12, 2016 at 1:20 pm (2 years ago)

        Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. As a new owner of a simese cat which was given to me when my brother passed away it is so important to care for her as my brother would have as a disable person kitty was the most important pet and companion in his life. So I thank you again from the new owner of what to me is a very important cat. Best to wishes.

        Reply
  3. Meow
    June 13, 2015 at 7:56 pm (3 years ago)

    My kitty is a little over 1 years old now and i’ve had her since she was 8 weeks old.. She’s been on the raw diet ever since I took her in.
    Despite her being a long-haired cat, I’ve never ever seen a single hairball from her or anything similar.
    However, a few days ago, she coughed for the first time. I thought she was trying to cough up a hairball but failed.. and then it happened again today.
    It’s infrequent and never lasts more than a few seconds..could this be a form of feline asthma?

    Sorry for commenting on such an old post! Haha

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 14, 2015 at 6:03 am (3 years ago)

      I would get your kitty checked out by a vet. You could take some video the next time she coughs so you can show it to your vet, it may help him/her identify what type of cough it is.

      Reply
  4. Jess
    July 22, 2013 at 2:11 am (5 years ago)

    Am I missing something? I cannot find the video?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 22, 2013 at 6:23 am (5 years ago)

      Jess, the video link seems to have disappeared – it’s back up now.

      Reply
      • Trish
        July 2, 2014 at 11:00 pm (4 years ago)

        I have enjoyed reading all these posts about feline asthma. I did not realize feline asthma was this huge an illness. My 11-year-old cat, Ari, has been having this cough for a while now and after spending a boatload of money at the vet’s office for testing for various illnesses, the vet told me he was stressed and anxious because I introduced three kittens into his life. I took this advise and moved on. I have noticed that Ari’s cough is more frequent, and after doing some reaching, feline asthma may be his ailment.

        Thanks to all who have shared all of this great advice. I will be changing the diet to grain-free canned food as well as changing the cat litter to one that does not produce too much dust. I’m sure my three one-year-old kitties will enjoy this as well.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          July 3, 2014 at 6:25 am (4 years ago)

          Let us know how Ari is doing after you make these changes, Trish.

          Reply
  5. Jane
    August 20, 2012 at 10:16 am (6 years ago)

    I will be sure to.

    Reply
  6. Jane
    August 16, 2012 at 8:42 am (6 years ago)

    My oldest Billy was diagnosed last year after I came home from the hospital from an acute asthma attack..he is so sweet about his inhalers and he will even come and get a snoot of O2 when that’s going! Believe it or not he loves to hold his nose in the air when the Nebulizer is on.

    This is a great article…never put the food into the equation.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 16, 2012 at 8:51 am (6 years ago)

      I’m sorry Billy has asthma, but glad that he’s so good about using his inhaler. If you decide to change his diet, I’d love to hear from you if you see any improvement.

      Reply
  7. Heidi Hill
    October 2, 2011 at 11:06 pm (7 years ago)

    My cat Tom has not been formally diagnosed with asthma, but the vet had mentioned it as a possibility for his coughing in the past. I feed him a raw diet now and I can’t remember the last time I heard him cough or gag. Plus he has a gorgeous coat and is at a perfect weight. No more dry food ever for him!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      October 3, 2011 at 6:58 am (7 years ago)

      Heidi, that’s wonderful! I’m so glad you switched Tom to a raw diet.

      Reply
  8. Renee
    April 1, 2011 at 10:41 am (7 years ago)

    This is a great article. I believe that diet is somewhat of a last causal consideration in many medical situations and I love that it has come up here. Coming from a less flexible, more ‘traditional’ or I’d say, ‘early-age’ veterinary background where standard grain-based prescription diets are often urged as a solution-even for allergies, I ended up finally switching my one asthmatic to grain free on my own. Because of his heart condition (and other medical problems) we could not use steroids on a regular basis, and I absolutely had to find him some relief. Once he transitioned fully, Brogan was eventually weaned from his daily inhaler and oral broncho-dilators. He kept his emergency inhaler and I had injectable steroids on hand along with a mini O2 tank and mask just in case (we’re talking real crises when he had his severe asthma episodes). Anyway, I have no doubt that the diet change made the difference for him. He also had relief from his chronic IBD. I will always regret not thinking to make the switch earlier in his life. We know that certain foods can trigger an inflammatory response in humans, so why not in other species? It’s sensible to consider all options and the individual’s needs as well. The good thing now is that with most of the veterinarians I come in contact, they give a nod to some form of grain-free feeding.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 1, 2011 at 10:51 am (7 years ago)

      Thank you for sharing your experience with Brogan, Renee. I’m glad that something as simple as a diet change provided relief for him and you were even able to wean him off some of his medications.

      Reply
  9. Dawn
    March 29, 2011 at 6:42 pm (7 years ago)

    Interesting article. My Lola all of a sudden stopped eating canned food and will only eat dry. She’s always sneezy and stuffy, but I’ve noticed of late it is more than usual. I will definitely keep an eye on it and try to re-introduce wet food.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 29, 2011 at 7:32 pm (7 years ago)

      That is interesting, Dawn. I’d be curious to hear whether Lola’s stuffiness improves once you get her off the dry food again.

      Reply
  10. curious
    March 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm (7 years ago)

    Ingrid, there is no scientific evidence or documentation in peer reviewed literature that is even remotely suggestive of grains in diets causing or exacerbating feline asthma. The two problems have absolutely no correlation unless there is already a food allergy present, in which, there is unlikely to be any relationship to asthma. I’d like to see concrete evidence and documentation of this.

    To suggest otherwise and to promote holistic care for a very serious feline condition such as asthma, is put simply, wrong.

    Fear-mongering of commercial diets at it’s best. I guess I didn’t realize this was a “naturally” and holistically-promoted blog, my bad.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm (7 years ago)

      Nowhere in this article does Dr. Tasi state that a diet change is the only appropriate treatment for asthma. She also clearly states that the correlation she’s seen between diet change and improvement in some of her asthmatic patients is based on her experience in her feline practice, and that it is her opinion that diets high in grain trigger an inflammatory response that MAY be a trigger for asthma and/or allergies.

      I take an integrative approach to health and healing. I believe that each modality has its strong points, whether it’s traditional medicine or holistic modalities, and each modaility has its drawbacks and potential side effects. It’s all about education, and that’s what I strive to provide here. I’ve had a life-long interest in holistic health, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best representatives of these modalities in the veterinary profession.

      As for your comment about “fear-mongering of commercial diets:” I realize that pet nutrition is a highly debated, and often controversial, topic. I am not opposed to commercial diets, in fact, I feed them to my cats. What I am opposed to are diets with poor quality ingredients, and diets that are not biologically appropriate for cats. The array of commercial diets is staggering, ranging from low end brands with poor quality ingredients and artificial preservatives to high end diets with natural, human-grade ingredients. My intent is to educate cat owners to do their research, understand how to read a pet food label, and look beyond the marketing hype.

      Reply
      • Zella
        April 27, 2013 at 11:53 am (5 years ago)

        I have enjoyed reading your blog, it is very informative. We have our cat, Jinx who appears to have asthma. First he was diagnosed with diabetes. We changed his diet to canned diabetes food and put him on insulin.

        Over time he developed this cough probably since he was 6 years old or so. Needless to say, he’s now off the insulin and we tried some medication to open his airways, but I felt (after some research) we should change his diet from the Diabetic canned food to just plan wet cat food without the grains. Due to his coughing Jinx stopped purring and would shake his head if he tried. Since we changed the diet…he’s starting to purr again, but still shakes his head and will eventually start coughing. Poor Jinx…I really want to help him but hoping I’m taking the correct approach to help him heal.

        Reply
    • lyn5
      April 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm (7 years ago)

      I know from experience that my Eddie’s coughing was food related. I adopted three boys from the same litter, and two have food allergies. Every time Eddie ate a certain dry food he would have a coughing fit about four hours later. Now I feed him dry duck and peas and Evo canned duck with Nusentia’s Spectrin supplement that addresses allergies. He hasn’t had a bad coughing fit for the two months he has eaten this combination. He did have a single cough once or twice during this period.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        April 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm (7 years ago)

        Lyn, I’m glad you found something that worked for Eddie. That’s great that he hasn’t had a bad coughing episode since the diet change.

        Reply
  11. Bernadette
    March 28, 2011 at 9:23 am (7 years ago)

    I’m so glad asthma is seriously diagnosed in cats and can be treated. My first cat from childhood, back in the dark ages of cat ownership, had asthma, but I didn’t know until it had progressed into a form of emphysema affecting the entirety of her lungs when she was 15. Since she could no longer breathe I had to have her put to sleep the day she was diagnosed. She had that dry hacking cough that lasted longer and longer over the years, her pink nose sometimes turning blue with the effort. I was given prednisone, which in those days was perhaps the only thing available. But I take any cough seriously now.

    Reply
  12. Leslie Kaufman
    March 28, 2011 at 7:33 am (7 years ago)

    I did not know about the correlation between dry food made with grain and asthma. I am so glad to have read this post!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 28, 2011 at 11:03 am (7 years ago)

      Isn’t it an interesting connection, Leslie?

      Reply

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