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  • CHOC Online

  • Lung Diseases in Cats: Asthma and Bronchitis


    Overview
    Contributing Factors
    Clinical Signs
    Causes
    Diagnosis
    Treatment
    Prognosis

     

    Overview
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    Obstructive and allergic lung diseases affect many cats and are sometimes called asthma, bronchitis, or bronchial asthma. Unfortunately, these diseases are not easily classified and probably represent a variety of lung disorders. They do share a common finding of “hyper-responsive” (over-reactive) airways.

    When the airway of the cat is sensitive to certain stimuli, exposure to these agents leads to narrowing of the airways. The inciting agents are usually direct irritants to the airways or things that provoke an allergic response in the respiratory tract. Regardless of the cause, the end-result is the same: muscle spasms in the bronchi (breathing tubes), inflammation, buildup of mucus, and accumulation of cellular material. In addition, the inability to clear the bronchi of this material leaves the cat susceptible to secondary infections.

    The cat is most stressed during the period of expiration (exhaling). The difficulty with expiration is typical with obstructive disease of the lung. Air may become effectively trapped in the lungs, causing them to over-inflate. In some cases, this trapping leads to development of emphysema in the cat.

    Contributing Factors
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    Obstructive lung disease is most common in cats from 2 to 8 years of age. Overweight cats may be more susceptible.

    Clinical Signs
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    Coughing and respiratory distress are the most commonly reported signs with obstructive lung disease. Coughing is a significant finding since there are relatively few causes of coughing in the cat. Also, many cats assume a crouched position with the neck extending during these coughing episodes. Wheezing may sometimes be easily heard with the stethoscope and is sometimes so loud that it can be heard without a stethoscope. Occasionally, sneezing and vomiting are noted. Open mouth breathing and blue-tinged gums and/or tongue are signs of serious respiratory distress.

    Causes
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    As mentioned above, this group of diseases is characterized by hyper-responsive airways. The small breathing tubes (bronchi and bronchioles) can react to a number of stimuli, such as:

    1. Inhaled debris or irritants – dust from cat litter, cigarette smoke, perfume or hairspray, carpet fresheners, flowers, and perfumes in laundry detergent
    2. Pollens, molds, weeds, grasses
    3. Infectious agents – viruses, bacteria
    4. Parasites – heartworms, lungworms

    Diagnosis
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    Several tests may be performed to achieve a diagnosis of allergic lung disease in the cat:

    1. Minimum data base (complete blood count, blood chemistries, fecal exam and urinalysis). These tests help to assess the general health of your cat and may provide clues as to the underlying cause. One particular type of white blood cell, the eosinophil, is commonly associated with allergic events and may provide support for a tentative diagnosis of asthma. Also, in cats in certain geographic areas, special tests can be performed on stool samples to find evidence of lungworms.
    2. Heartworm test. Strictly indoor cats are still at risk.
    3. Feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus tests. These tests are helpful in determining the overall health of your cat.
    4. Thoracic radiography (chest X-ray). Characteristic changes in the lungs are common on x-rays. Also, the x-rays can be suggestive of heartworms in some cases.
    5. Bronchoscopy, cytology, and airway lavage (washing). Bronchoscopy is a procedure that allows us to look down the airways of the anesthetized cat with a fiberoptic scope. After a visual examination of the airway is completed, the mucus lining of the bronchi may be sampled with a small brush. The mucus can be examined under a microscope (cytology). Finally, a small amount of sterile saline can be flushed into the airways to retrieve samples of material from deep in the lung. This material can be cultured for micro-organisms and can also be carefully studied under the microscope. The sediment can be evaluated for evidence of lungworms.

    In many cases, an underlying cause cannot be identified, despite a thorough diagnostic workup. Even when the underlying cause is not identified, many cats can achieve a reasonable quality of life with medical management.

    Some owners decline the complete workup for a variety of reasons. In such cases, it may be acceptable to treat the cat with a course of corticosteroids (cortisone) since most asthmatic cats respond very favorably. However, these medications can complicate the management of cats harboring secondary bacterial infections; therefore, prophylactic antibiotics are reasonable in cases where a workup cannot be performed. In addition, cats that are coughing due to heartworms often improve with corticosteroids. Without heartworm testing, they may go undetected.

    Treatment
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    Successful management of allergic lung disease employs several therapies. Medication can be given in one of several ways depending on the cat’s symptoms and general health and the owner’s ability to medicate the cat. Injectable and oral medications have long been used to control feline obstructive lung disease, but recently inhaled medications have shown great promise and are worth consideration in many cases. We stress to owners that unless we can identify and eliminate the actual cause, our goal with therapy is control or management of the symptoms, versus actual cure.

    1. Any factors known to trigger or aggravate breathing problems should be avoided. In some cases, this may mean trying different brands of cat litter, eliminating cigarette smoke from the home, etc. The list above (see “Causes”) details some factors that should be considered. It is important to pay close attention to environmental factors that may aggravate the condition.
    2. Bronchodilators. These drugs are used to open the airways and allow the cat to move air more freely. They should be used faithfully and as directed to obtain maximum effect. This medication is available as both an oral and an inhaled form for treatment at home.
    3. Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids have a beneficial effect on decreasing inflammation, dilating the airway, and decreasing mucus production. At this time the preferred choice for most cats is inhaled steroids. This route of delivery is preferred for two main reasons. The steroids go directly to the lungs and stay almost exclusively in the lungs. This makes them potentially more effective and less likely to cause systemic side effects. Other forms of steroids include oral and injectable formulations. These drug formulations have a greater potential for causing side effects, although this is seen much less commonly in cats than in humans or in dogs. Side effects that can be seen with steroids include increased water and food intake and urinations, diabetes mellitus, and liver toxicity. Steroids can also worsen kidney failure and cause decompensation of heart disease and progression into congestive heart failure in predisposed cats.
    4. Emergency treatment may employ bronchodilators, oxygen, rapid-acting glucocorticoids, and epinephrine. When the cat has heart disease, the attending veterinarian should be advised since epinephrine is best avoided.

    Prognosis
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    Cats with obstructive lung disease are usually manageable. Sometimes “cure” may be achieved if a specific underlying cause can be identified and treated. Extreme respiratory distress constitutes an emergency, and the cat should receive immediate attention.


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