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Why does the cat wheeze?

Posted on: September 22nd, 2011 by

A cat with cat insurance and feline asthma looks past the camera.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
Idaho Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Feline asthma is a common, but poorly understood respiratory disease in cats. It is very similar to asthma in people, but cats pose an interesting challenge in terms or delivering medications to control this disease! Because of the difficult nature of treating this disease, it’s advised to research cat insurance early on.

It is thought that the cause of feline asthma is related to an allergic reaction to something inhaled. Successful therapy will often include attempting to determine what in the environment the cat is reacting to. Often this is difficult to do; possible allergens include dust, cigarette smoke, mildew and mold, pollen, cat litter, and possibly household chemicals.

Cats in city environments and in households with owners that smoke do seem to be at an increased risk for feline asthma. There is no conclusive proof, but it is thought that avoiding these allergenic triggers can help to control this condition.

This disease is characterized by inflammation of the lower respiratory system resulting in bronchoconstriction. When the bronchioles narrow, there is less room for airflow. Cats will compensate for this by increasing their respiratory rate. Thus, most cats I have seen with this condition have a rapid respiratory rate and cough, but every cat can show somewhat different symptoms.

Some cats will have a slight chronic cough or wheeze for years and never seem in distress. Other cats can have a seasonal component to their symptoms. Some will only acutely present in respiratory distress without any history of coughing. Because diagnosis and treatment can sometimes be expensive, it’s a good idea to have pet insurance for your cat. Purchasing this when your cat is still a kitten is a good idea. Left untreated, cats can suffer severe bronchiospasms, leading to asthma attacks and even death.

Cats can compensate for respiratory disease in amazing ways and subtle changes in breathing can actually indicate a serious problem. Any change in character or depth of breathing, or a resting respiration rate over 50 to 60 breaths a minutes is typically abnormal in a cat. Any cat that is breathing with its mouth open, like a panting dog, is also abnormal. Respiratory issues warrant immediate veterinary attention to treat and diagnose the underlying problem. Consider having cat insurance as a way to help keep your cat healthy!

There is no one reliable test that proves feline asthma is the underlying cause. Your veterinarian will need to perform several tests, likely blood work and chest radiographs in order to rule out other diseases that can also look this way. This is really important since other respiratory diseases mimicking asthma can be even more serious; such diseases include pneumonia, heartworm disease, lung cancer, heart failure and chronic bronchitis, just to name a few.

Initial treatment in an acute crisis will likely include steroids, bronchodilators and oxygen therapy. Hospitalization and veterinary medicine in general is expensive, and considering pet heath insurance is always a good idea to help with unexpected costs. Once a diagnosis is made, most cats can be managed on two types of medication, similarly to people. One medication is used for long term control (usually some type of steroid), the other medication (usually a bronchodilator) is needed for short term immediate relief during an ‘attack.’

Believe it or not, there are feline asthma inhalers available that can deliver medication directly to the lungs. They are shaped like a face mask and are placed over the nose and mouth. This isn’t always tolerated well by cats. In those that refuse this, oral or injectable medications are needed.

An asthma attack can be a scary thing to watch, and certainly always warrants medical attention, but the good news is that cats can live very comfortable lives as a well-controlled asthmatic.

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