Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
If you think of asthma as only a human health condition, you’re not alone. But in reality, both cats and dogs can suffer from asthma, or allergic bronchitis, just like people do. Here’s what you need to know about this serious and potentially life-threatening health condition.
AN ALLERGIC REACTION
Asthma — which in dogs is called allergic bronchitis and in cats is called feline asthma, allergic bronchitis and several other names — is typically triggered by an allergic reaction to something in the environment (an allergen) which is usually, but not always, inhaled. (For reference, allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma in people.) The overreaction of the cat or dog’s immune system causes inflammation in the airways and constriction of the smooth muscle associated with those airways, making it very difficult for the pet to breathe. The lungs may also secrete mucus into the airways, leading to fits of coughing and wheezing.
The allergen that triggers an asthma attack in cats and dogs can be virtually anything. Common asthma triggers include:
- Tobacco or fireplace smoke
- Air pollution (smog, smoke from wildfires or controlled vegetation burns)
- Perfumes (including those used in deodorants, hair spray, room fresheners and home cleaning products)
- Pollen from grasses, weeds and other plants
- Chemicals (including those found in carpet, carpet cleaners, other household cleaning products, home remodeling products and paint)
- Animal dander
- Dust from kitty litter
Many times, the exact allergen that triggers a dog’s or cat’s asthma is never identified. Extreme stress and obesity can exacerbate the severity of an asthma attack in cats.
MORE COMMON IN CATS
Asthma (allergic bronchitis) is more common in cats than dogs, affecting between 1 and 5 percent of adult cats, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center. In addition, small dogs are more likely to develop the condition than large dogs. Dogs and cats of all ages can suffer from this respiratory disease; however, most pets are young to middle-aged at the time of diagnosis.
SYMPTOMS OF ALLERGIC BRONCHITIS
The hallmark of allergic bronchitis in dogs and cats is a chronic, dry hacking cough. An asthmatic cat often sounds like he or she is trying to “cough up” a hairball — but no hairball ever appears. Other common signs include wheezing, labored breathing, open-mouth breathing (cats don’t normally pant unless something is seriously wrong!), lethargy, lack of appetite and pale mucous membranes. Unfortunately, asthma-like symptoms in cats and dogs can be associated with other diseases, such as heartworm infection, respiratory parasites, tumors, heart failure and pneumonia. If you suspect your pet has a chronic cough or any of the other symptoms mentioned, schedule an appointment for your pet to be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.
DIAGNOSIS CAN BE CHALLENGING
No one specific test can help a veterinarian diagnose asthma in your pet. However, X-rays, blood work, parasite tests and evaluation of airway secretions can be used to rule out other causes of your pet’s symptoms.
ALLERGIC BRONCHITIS CAN BE MANAGED AND TREATED
Although there’s no cure for asthma or allergic bronchitis, there are options for successfully managing it. Part of disease management requires removing the allergen trigger from the pet’s environment. However, that’s not always possible, especially if the inciting trigger can’t be identified. Medications are available to help manage asthma symptoms, including medicines that open up airways and reduce airway inflammation or modify the body’s immune response. There are even special devices you can use to administer inhaled medications.