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Asthma in Pets

Spring is here in Minnesota! We can finally throw open our windows, air out our homes, and… let in the allergens? Soon after, your cat or dog starts coughing. Could there be a connection? Many people are familiar with asthma in humans because they or their loved ones are affected, but pets can have asthma, too.

Allergic bronchitis, often referred to as asthma, occurs much more commonly in cats than in dogs. It affects up to 1% of the feline population, with Siamese more likely to be affected than other breeds.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Owners may notice symptoms like coughing, wheezing, or acute respiratory distress characterized by increased rate and effort to breathe. Cats may also appear to be trying to cough up a hairball, but nothing is produced. Sometimes, cats might even pant. The color of a pet’s gums may turn slightly bluish during an acute attack.

Why do these symptoms occur?

These symptoms are a result of the body’s response to an allergen. The body starts a cascade of inflammation. The lungs begin to secrete more mucus, and the muscles lining the airways constrict causing the airways to close. Common household allergens include dust, dust mites, cigarette smoke, air fresheners, pollen, and household chemicals.

How does my veterinarian diagnose asthma?

Your veterinarian will need to make sure your pet’s coughing is caused by asthma and not something else. Other possible causes of coughing include heart disease and chronic bronchitis (in dogs only), as well as Heartworm disease, lungworms, pneumonia, and cancer in both dogs and cats. Your veterinarian will need to perform diagnostic testing, often including bloodwork and x-rays, to rule out these potential other issues and diagnose asthma.

Bloodwork may hint the body is responding to an allergen by mobilizing a type of white blood cell called an eosinophil, and asthma can be indicated if there is an increase in that type of cell.

X-rays are the most common and least invasive method for making a diagnosis of asthma as well as ruling out many of the other causes of coughing. In pets with asthma, x-rays will show thickening of the airways and overinflation of the lungs. If bloodwork and x-rays are still inconclusive, or your vet suspects that your pet may have a secondary infection, more advanced diagnostics may be recommended.

What happens after my pet is diagnosed with asthma?

If you have brought your pet to the emergency room in respiratory distress, you can expect that the staff will immediately bring your pet to the ICU to start treatments such as oxygen therapy, bronchodilators, and steroids. Bronchodilators are medications that relax the spasming muscles, thereby reopening the airways. Steroids reduce the inflammation your pet is experiencing.

If your pet is stable and being seen on a non-emergent basis, your veterinarian will likely prescribe steroids, the cornerstone of long-term therapy, that reduce the body’s immune response to allergens in the first place, thereby reducing the frequency, duration and severity of asthmatic attacks. Because steroids can have many side effects, your veterinarian will try to find your pet’s lowest effective dose. For cats and some dogs, steroid inhalers are appropriate and generally tolerated very well. You can see the spacer and a demonstration of its use at www.aerokat.com. In addition to medications, long-term management at home will include reducing allergen exposure—no smoking indoors, air filters to reduce dust and dust mites, and possibly keeping the house closed during allergy seasons if pollens seem to be a particular triggers for your pet.

When does my pet need to see a veterinarian for asthma treatment?

If your pet is resting and is taking more than 40 breaths per minute, is working harder than normal to breathe, or if your cat is panting, he/she should be brought to an emergency center immediately. If your pet is having episodes of coughing on a regular basis, make an appointment with your family veterinarian.​

If you suspect your pet may have asthma, consult with your veterinarian to determine further action. If your family veterinarian is unavailable and your pet is experiencing respiratory distress, both our Oakdale and St. Paul clinics are open 24/7, every day of the year.

Written by: Beth Bruns, DVM

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