Integrative Pet Vet: Feline asthma is a common, serious problem
Feline asthma, also known as allergic airway disease, is the most common respiratory disorder in cats. It is estimated that 1-5 percent of cats are affected. This means that more than 800,000 cats are affected by acute or chronic asthma in the U.S.
Affected cats are often chronically affected, and it is thought to be a lifelong problem. The average cat is diagnosed between 4-5 years of age, although it is believed that a low-grade inflammatory process starts at a much younger age.
Most agree that feline asthma is caused by an allergic reaction to inhaled allergens. This allergic reaction results in inflammation (see last month’s article) in the small airways of the lungs, resulting in swelling that constricts the airway. Mucus accumulation can cause further complications.
The intensity of the signs associated with feline asthma can range from mild to severe. Some authorities classify feline asthma into four categories: 1) mild — intermittent signs that do not interfere with normal activity 2) moderate — signs occur daily but do not interfere with regular activities 3) severe — debilitating signs that occur daily and 4) life-threatening — airway constriction so severe that oxygen deprivation occurs and emergency treatment is needed.
Difficult breathing may appear as rapid breathing that may include open-mouth breathing with the head extended. Wheezing, coughing or hacking may also occur. Episodes often begin suddenly. Severely affected cats focus on trying to “catch their breath” and, in addition to the signs already described, often have excessive breathing effort with the chest and abdominal muscles.
Diagnosis of feline asthma involves gathering a complete history of the problem, a physical examination, blood tests that include a complete blood count, serum chemistries and tests for feline leukemia virus, and chest X-rays. Additional tests may include bronchoscopy, culture of airway secretions, feline heartworm tests, and stool exam for parasites. These tests are important because feline asthma is one of a group of lung diseases that can affect cats. A full evaluation is important so that therapy can be focused appropriately on reducing the airway inflammation and constriction.
Effective management of feline asthma requires a range of approaches that are somewhat dependent on the severity. Basic care involves avoidance of the allergen triggers and substances that can affect the airways. This includes avoidance of cigarette smoke (second hand smoke is a major trigger for sensitive cats) and wood smoke, especially in the winter. Gradually changing litter to an unscented, dust free or low-dust litter is important. Use dish soap or vinegar to clean the litter box and rinse well. Avoid chemical sprays, aroma therapies and scented products. Consider an air purifier. Minimize stress for affected cats. Feed a high-quality food and be aware of potential allergic reactions to foods that can complicate the management of the feline asthma problem.
The choice of medication for treatment depends on the severity and occurrence of acute episodes. In an acute episode with severe respiratory difficulty, tranquilizers, airway dilators and oxygen may be needed. While steroids and airway dilators are the central focus of conventional therapy for chronic management of feline asthma, there is concern for increased risk of diabetes and pancreatitis with steroids.
It is important to make sure that each cat has been adequately treated for roundworms. Integrative support care also involves reducing the inflammatory reaction in the airways and improving the overall health of the lung tissue. This can help to reduce the need for ongoing or high levels of steroids.
Use of vitamins A and C can be supportive of the respiratory lining. Vitamin A must be in the retinoid form found in foods like liver or cod liver oil. Vitamin D plays a role in controlling inflammation. Be cautious to avoid toxicities from too much vitamin A or D. Improved adrenal function and fish oil can aid in reducing inflammation. Probiotic support of the intestinal flora can be beneficial in supporting the immune system. Essential oils should be avoided because they may aggravate feline asthma and because cats are more sensitive to potentially toxic effects of the compounds found in some essential oils.
Contact your veterinarian if you have questions about feline asthma.
Ron Carsten was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine degree, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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