If your cat has a cough it may be a precursor to a sticky hairball surprise on your bedroom floor...or it could be feline asthma, a potentially life threatening condition. Asthma is the most common cat respiratory disorder we see in veterinary medicine and affects about 1% of our feline friends. Typical signs include a hunched position with a cough sound or spells of rapid breathing with abdominal effort (heaving breaths). During a serious episode cats will often breath through their mouths which is always abnormal since a contented kitty breathes only through his or her nostrils. Episodes can be so severe that the animal may collapse and turn bluish-purple due to lack of oxygen.
Feline asthma is similar to asthma in humans in that the major airways in the lungs, the bronchi, become constricted making oxygen exchange difficult. Common stimuli that result in bronchial inflammation and irritation include dusty kitty litter, cigarette smoke, aerosol sprays or perfumes, and environmental allergens (dust, mites, grass, pollen, etc). Generally it is difficult to determine what triggers an attack but avoidance is very important to minimize recurrent episodes.
Asthma episodes can be single events but most cats have life-long risk of recurrent episodes. X-rays are the best way to make an accurate diagnosis of asthma and the good news is the condition can be successfully managed although a "cure" is usually not possible. There are many options for treatment including oral medications to help with bronchial constriction and steroids to reduce inflammation in the airways. We can also use special cat inhalers to help get medication directly to the lungs as a preventative or to assist with a severe episode. If you notice your cat is having difficulty breathing, please contact your veterinarian immediately as this is a true emergency!
This video shows what a feline asthma attack looks like: