How to treat a cat with asthma

catOne in 100 cats suffers from asthma. If you’re a practising vet, the chances are you will treat one of them at some point. Dr Stephan Carey, Small Animal Respiratory Specialist, explains how vets can diagnose and treat asthma in cats.

The biggest hurdle for any vet treating a cat with asthma occurs before they even meet their patient; it’s getting cat owners to identify the symptoms and bring them in for a check up.

“The most common symptom of asthma in cats is a chronic cough,” Stephan explains. “It begins as an episodic cough. The cat will cough for a couple of days, maybe a week, and then they will stop.”

Because these symptoms occur in fits and starts, many owners will think the problem has resolved itself and fail to bring their cat to the vet. Another concern is that many cat owners don’t realise their cat is coughing.

“Cats cough with their mouths closed, which throws a lot of people off,” he says. “Many owners don’t realise their cat is coughing or that there’s even something wrong.”

Stephan wants all vets and owners to be aware of the prevalence of asthma in cats of all breeds, but particularly Asian and exotic breeds like Siamese, Havana Brown and Burmese.

“One in 100 cats gets asthma, but in certain breeds the prevalence is closer to 5 or even 10 per cent,” Stephan says. “Anyone who works in small animal or companion animal medicine is going to see asthmatic cats, and anyone who does specialty work with these breeds is going to see a lot more of it.”

So what should vets be telling the owners of a cat that has asthma, or that is at risk of developing asthma?

“The predisposition for cats to become asthmatic is genetic,” Stephan says. “But, just as in humans, there are environmental factors. There are things owners can do to minimise the development of symptoms. It’s mostly about keeping the indoor air clean. Minimising exposure to tobacco smoke is very important. That doesn’t mean just don’t smoke in the room where the cat is – there really is no level of tolerable tobacco smoke exposure.”

Asthma is a disease of inflammation, and used to be treated with oral steroids. However, these have unpleasant side effects and aren’t ideal for long-term use. Thanks to exciting research taking place in Australia and around the world, there have been advancements in how asthmatic cats are treated.

“We have begun to transition from oral steroids to inhaled steroids, which is exactly how asthma is treated in people,” Stephan says.

And while many cat owners initially baulk at the idea of their cat tolerating this kind of treatment, Stephan says it’s actually quite simple.

“You can teach cats how to use a face mask and a device that allows them to inhale the drug. It targets the steroid right to the airway and avoids a lot of the side effects you see with oral steroids.

“Every owner has said to me, ‘There’s no way my cat’s going to do that’. It’s really about training. The owner holds the facemask in their hand and holds it against the nose of the cat, and all the cat has to do is breathe normally through the mask for five to 10 seconds, twice a day. Once they get accustomed to having the mask on their nose, we add the inhaler. I have yet to meet an owner who has not been able to get their cat to do it. It really is very effective.”

Hear from Dr Stephan Carey and many more at the AVA Conference in Melbourne from 4 – 9 June 2017.