Wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath can be experienced by cats, dogs, and people diagnosed with asthma, an inflammatory lower airway disease. Asthma in dogs is less common than in cats, but both species suffer from asthma in much the same way as people. Pets can sustain asthmatic episodes because of triggers caused by people and vice versa. While not every cough or wheeze from your pet are signs of asthma, they may indicate an inflammatory airway condition. 

What causes asthma in pets?

In cats, asthma is often referred to as allergic bronchitis, or bronchial asthma. Most commonly, asthma signs first appear in young cats, with a higher prevalence in Siamese and Himalayan breeds. Sudden asthma development in older cats is extremely uncommon. 

Asthma attacks in dogs are much less common than in cats or people, but the clinical signs are similar. Small, middle-aged dogs are most likely to develop asthma, although some young dogs can also be affected. 

Asthma in pets is believed to be triggered by allergen inhalation, including:

  • Mold spores
  • Dust mites
  • Cat litter dust
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen
  • Household cleaners
  • Perfume
  • Cigarettes and e-cigarettes
  • Wood smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Air fresheners
  • Aerosolized products, such as insect repellents and disinfectants

Essentially, asthma is caused by a hypersensitivity response to what should be benign inhaled allergens. As the immune system kicks into overdrive, allergen-specific antibodies develop further, which in turn attract additional inflammatory cells. This overactive immune response creates an inflammatory condition and spasms in the respiratory tract, causing asthma signs. 

What are the signs of asthma in pets?

Asthma signs are similar in each species. A typical asthmatic episode frequently includes:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

These signs may come and go, depending on your pet’s allergen exposure. If shortness of breath escalates to a severe level, bluish mucous membranes may be seen in the eyelids and gums from a lack of oxygen.

How is asthma in pets diagnosed?

Since asthma in dogs is fairly uncommon, and cats rarely cough, except because of hairballs, an asthma diagnosis can be a challenge, and is usually confirmed by ruling out other coughing causes, to ensure no other disease processes are missed. 

During your pet’s appointment to determine the cause of coughing, our Groves Veterinary Clinic team will take a thorough history, to discover any triggers that may prompt a wheezing episode. Our veterinarian will perform a comprehensive physical exam, listening carefully to your pet’s lungs and heart. To help ensure an accurate diagnosis, your pet will likely undergo a series of diagnostic tests, including:

  • Chest X-rays focusing on the heart and lungs
  • Bronchoscopy, in which an endoscope is used to view the bronchial tubes
  • Testing of biopsy and swab samples, to search for infection or neoplastic disease
  • Allergy testing, to determine the severity of allergen triggers

Since there are other medical conditions that can cause a pet to cough, diagnostic testing and a thorough evaluation are crucial for ruling out other causes, such as:

  • Heartworm disease 
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Collapsing trachea
  • Kennel cough
  • Parasites
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Lung disease

Occasionally, smoke inhalation or chemical exposure can trigger coughing, so consider your pet’s exposure to potential irritants carefully. 

How is asthma in pets treated?

As asthma has no cure, treatment involves helping to reduce airway inflammation. To ease your pet’s asthma signs, we may recommend these methods:

  • Environmental changes — An important asthma therapy goal is to limit or remove irritants or specific allergens. Wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, carpet cleaning powder, hair spray, perfume, cigarettes, air fresheners, and cat litter dust are common irritants that can be limited, to help keep your asthmatic pet comfortable. If your pet has specific outdoor allergen triggers, such as pollens, keep her indoors with the windows shut during peak allergen times.
  • Weight management — Many pets are overweight or obese, cats more so than dogs, and those extra pounds can compromise respiratory function, and make breathing more difficult. Keep your pet at an ideal body weight, to help her heart and lungs work more effectively.
  • Bronchodilators — During a life-threatening asthma attack, bronchodilators are the first medication in the line of defense. With pets who are not well-controlled through steroids alone, bronchodilators can be given long-term. Daily medications are often given orally, while rescue therapy is usually in injectable or inhalant form.
  • Corticosteroids — Many asthmatic cats respond well to oral or inhaled corticosteroids, limiting the need for bronchodilators. Corticosteroids control ongoing inflammation, which can permanently change the airway’s structure.

Although using an inhaler on your pet may seem difficult, specialized inhalers can deliver inhalant bronchodilators or steroids to cats and dogs. 

How can pets and people with asthma live together?

Does the sight of an adorable kitten make you gasp in delight, knocking your breath away? Or, maybe watching your dog get a case of the “zoomies” in your home leaves you wheezing for air, as much as she is panting. While your pet can suffer from asthma, you can also be affected, particularly when in close contact with your furry pal. To help reduce pet-related asthma attacks, try the following:

  • Vacuum frequently
  • Groom your pet regularly
  • Prevent your pet from sleeping with you
  • Keep bedding clean

While avoiding pet dander and saliva may be difficult, you can still enjoy your furry pal’s affection, with an allergist’s help. 

Have you noticed that your pet has an unusual cough or wheeze? Schedule an appointment with our team today.