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ASK DR. SUSAN . . . Why is my cat coughing?


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ASK DR. SUSAN . . .
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Why is my cat coughing?

While coughing itself is uncommon in the cat, there are many reasons why a cat may cough, (heart disease, foreign body, cancer, infection such as pneumonia or bordatella, parasites such as heartworm disease or lungworm) with the most common reason (apart from hairballs) being feline asthma (also known as bronchial asthma and allergic bronchitis).

How can I differentiate feline asthma from a hairball?
Usually your veterinarian can make this determination, but if your cat is coughing and hairballs are NOT coming up, your cat may have asthma and should be examined.

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With hairballs and feline asthma, the cat assumes a crouched position with the head and neck extended (as in the photograph) and appears to be trying to get a hairball up. With asthma, the hairball doesn't come up and the signs seem to increase with the cat having more and more similar episodes.

What causes feline asthma?
It is a recurrence of inflammation of the lung's airways. According to Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, DipABVP from the Pet Health Library, "excess mucus forms, then the airway walls swell with inflammation and can actually ulcerate, and finally the airway muscles go into spasm, which leads to constriction. Airway constriction leads to inability to draw a deep breath, intolerance to exercise, coughing and musical sighing sounds called wheezes, though not all these symptoms may be apparent at the same time." Asthma can be life threatening if left untreated.

Several pollutants (cigarette smoke, sprays, dusty cat litter, food allergy) have been suspected but it is difficult to point the finger at which one could be the reason for it.

How will my vet know if my cat has feline asthma?

Your vet will want to take radiographs and bloodwork (+/- analysis of tracheal fluid) to assist in making the diagnosis. Sometimes it's a clear cut diagnosis, other times it might be a little trickier. Your vet might want to start treatment for asthma and see if there is a clinical response to treatment which will aid in diagnosis.

Is there treatment for feline asthma?

Yes, not to worry there are many treatments. Because it is an immune response to some antigen, your vet may want to start your kitty on steroids which will lower the immune response and the inflammation. These are available in injectable forms as well as oral forms and you can discuss with your veterinarian both of these options.
Bronchodilators can also be used (which open up the bronchioles) and some veterinarians use these in conjunction with steroids or for acute episodes.

Portable inhalers have also been used (in cats that will tolerate the mask) and is another option to discuss with your vet.

The most important thing is if your cat has any of the signs of asthma that he/she be seen by a veterinarian right away as this disease is treatable once a diagnosis has been made and fatal if left untreated.