Asthma is a chronic breathing problem. Both cats and people suffer from it, but it isn't contagious. An asthmatic cat (or person) has bouts of extremely difficult breathing called asthma attacks. An asthma attack is fairly easy to spot; you'll notice rapid, open-mouthed breathing accompanied by wheezing and often by forced exhalations.
Because breathing is so severely restricted during an asthma attack, the cat's gums and tongue may take on a bluish color. (Do not try to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR to a cat having an asthma attack.)
Asthma often develops from another breathing problem called allergic bronchitis. This is pretty much what it sounds like: The airways in the cat's lungs get inflamed as the result of an allergic reaction to inhaled germs, dust (including dust from litter), wood smoke, and other irritants.
Usually the cat has no other major signs of illness, a normal temperature, and continues to eat well. The only telltale sign is that she just has fits of deep, moist-sounding coughing. If the allergic bronchitis goes untreated or the source of the allergy isn't removed, the lungs can be permanently damaged, resulting in emphysema and asthma. Once the damage is done, even removing the original cause or causes of the allergic bronchitis won't make asthma go away.
Recently, some studies have been done on the effects of secondhand smoke on pets. The news is about what you'd expect: Secondhand smoke isn't particularly good for your cat. Cats with asthma or other breathing problems suffer more from secondhand smoke. Remember, asthma is related to allergies, so anything that irritates the air passages of the lungs -- including cigarette smoke -- can trigger an asthma attack.
What to Do
Reduce stress. Stress makes allergies and asthma worse. Right about now you're saying to yourself, "Stress? What the heck kind of stress does a cat have?" That's a fair question. They certainly don't have to worry about paying bills or where their next meal is coming from. (Those are your stresses, actually.) They don't have job pressures or deadlines to meet. Heck, they don't even have to think about what they're going to wear every day.
Cats have stress that we like to call "domestication stress" or "family stress." You see, cats weren't originally designed and built to live among humans. They've done a superb job of adapting, but no matter how independent and primal your cat seems, she's still having to deal with the human world and human civilization every single day. And that gets tough. Giving her plenty of options to do cat things such as run, climb, stalk (preferably another cat), bat things around, hide, and nap in secluded spots helps her cope.
If the stress level goes up in your life or in your household, it goes up in your cat's life, too. She can't understand why things are getting tense -- she just knows people are moving and sounding anxious. Remember, "stress" doesn't just mean negative things; positive events carry stress, too. In fact, probably the worst kind of stress for a cat is change.
A new baby, for instance, is not only a time for great joy but also for great change -- and the stresses that go with that. For you, those stresses mean less sleep (or none at all), a change in lifestyle, and an extra mouth to feed. For your cat, it means some strange new animal, who makes odd noises, smells funny, and doesn't do much, suddenly takes all the human attention away from her!
Clear the air. Secondhand smoke isn't the only thing that can make asthma worse. Even things that we think make our home more pleasant can be a no-no for a cat with bronchitis or asthma. Perfumes, room fresheners, deodorizers, and even scented litters or litter additives can trigger allergy and asthma attacks.
Likewise, the fumes from paints, cleaners, varnishes, and new carpeting are actually chemical irritants that create problems for the asthmatic cat. Use natural objects, such as flowers, eucalyptus sprigs, and fresh floral potpourri, to provide a fresh scent to a room instead of sprays or solids that contain chemicals. Use strong-smelling paints, stains, cleaners, and solvents in well-ventilated rooms, and keep the cat out until the smell goes away. And put out those smokes.
It's a good idea to use plain, natural, unscented litter and to stay away from deodorizers you add to the litter. Also the dust from the litter itself irritates the lungs and can cause attacks in asthmatic cats. Some natural litters -- like the ones made of recycled paper -- have virtually no dust at all. To cut down on dust from clay litters, pour them slowly, keeping the opening of the bag just a few inches from the litter box.
Wetter is better. Dry air dries out the lining of your cat's air passages, encouraging coughing and making your cat more vulnerable to infection and allergic reactions. Be sure to have a good humidifier going, especially in winter, during heating season, and in arid areas of the country. There's an added bonus to this remedy: You will also be less likely to have as many coughs, stuffy noses, and colds in the air if your home is kept properly moist.
Moderation in all things. A sedentary cat is more prone to health problems, but a cat who already has asthma can have a severe attack if she exerts herself too much. On the other hand, if she barely exerts at all, her breathing will be more labored because her heart and lungs aren't fit. Plus, she'll probably gain weight, and the heavier the cat, the more trouble she'll have with her asthma.
Stick to the right amount of a high-quality, healthy diet; cut out the snacks and treats; and make sure your cat stays active. Get her a feline playmate and a good supply of toys. Be certain to play with her yourself, but keep the play sessions short and low-impact.
When to Call the Vet
Any full-blown asthma attack is a medical emergency, which means your cat needs immediate veterinary medical care. Likewise, if your cat gasps for air, collapses, or turns blue in the gums and tongue, don't wait to take her to the animal hospital. Milder signs (such as noisy breath, occasional and intermittent wheezing or moist coughs, or slightly labored breathing after exertion) aren't emergencies, but you should get your cat to the vet as soon as possible. They could be caused by something other than allergies. And if it is bronchitis or the start of asthma, your vet may be able to give your cat medication that can prevent the danger and fright of a full-blown attack.
DANGER LEVEL: Dangerous; a severe asthma attack can be fatal.
In the next section, we will examine how to treat your cat if she has urinary tract disease.