Pet 411: Ah-choo! Addressing Feline Asthma

Asthma is not a lot of fun for either people or pets. I should know, because I have asthma and I’ve treated many pets who suffer from the condition, too.

So that’s why I immediately felt sympathy for Debbie Miller’s cat, who has been diagnosed with asthma. Her cat is in her third week of prednisone – a steroid that is commonly prescribed to treat asthma – and she does not enjoy taking her medication (a common kitty complaint!).

Debbie recently dropped the dosage and her cat is getting wheezy again. She wonders if she’ll have to be on steroids for life, a worrying prospect.

First, the good news: I wouldn’t recommend her kitty remain on oral steroids indefinitely if at all possible. Steroids are a great tool for reducing inflammation but they can cause health problems if used improperly or for prolonged periods of time. And there are other ways to treat feline asthma effectively without prolonged use of oral steroids.

Let’s back up a moment and talk about what feline asthma is. It’s remarkably similar to asthma in humans – an inflammation of the small passageways of the lungs. It can be difficult to diagnose because there are many other diseases that mimic asthma, including heartworms and respiratory infections.

The most common sign of asthma is an asthma attack. Your cat will squat and hunch up the shoulders while coughing up mucus. It looks a lot like coughing up a hairball.  The attacks can be difficult to catch, however, you should contact your veterinarian if your cat starts doing any of the following:

  • Coughing for longer than five minutes
  • Coughing more than twice an hour three times a day
  • Breathing changes (either faster or deeper breaths than normal)

The veterinarian will likely perform chest X-rays to look for inflammation and ask for bloodwork.  Asthma is typically a diagnosis made after excluding other possible causes of cough (such as pneumonia). The most definitive test is an airway lavage, which involves taking a mucus sample to look for an increase in the number of eosinophils, a type of white blood cell.

It is true that oral steroids work quickly to reduce the inflammation and is usually a first line treatment.  If the steroids work well and symptoms return after trying to decrease the dose like Debbie’s cat, perhaps the most effective and safest long term treatment method is an inhaler – very similar to what we give people with asthma. A feline asthma inhaler will come with a small mask that covers the cat’s mouth and nose and allows them to breathe normally while inhaling the aerosol medication.

I strongly recommend – and I can’t emphasize this enough – that you don’t attempt to start using the inhaler without your vet’s help. By practicing together with treats, you can make using the inhaler less scary for your cat. The less frightened your cat is, the more likely she will be to use the inhaler willingly. And believe me, I’ve seen cats come running when they see the inhaler if they know a treat will follow.

You’ll also want to make some changes to your cat’s environment. Take care to reduce allergens such as pollen, mold, dust from cat litter and cigarette smoke.

The most important thing to remember is that cats diagnosed with asthma can live long and healthy lives. Good luck, Debbie! I wish you and your kitty the best.

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.