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4 Weird Things About Having a Cat With Asthma

You might have odd conversations with pharmacists who ask, "Cats can use inhalers?"

Kyla Cathey  |  Sep 21st 2015


My cat, Sparrow, has been an extremely important and entertaining part of my life for nine years. She stomps around like an elephant — feline grace is a foreign concept to her. She begs for yogurt, eats anything made of paper I leave lying around (like bills, oops), loves it when I whistle terrible pop songs, and never gets tired of a good petting session.

She knows she’s wonderful. Photo by Kyla Cathey.

And occasionally, she wheezes like someone who’s smoked for 30 years, thanks to her asthma.

Here are a few strange things about having a cat with asthma:

1. Cats can get asthma

Yeah, I know, it’s obvious now. But seven years ago, when Sparrow suddenly went from a wild troublemaker living the tortie life 24/7 to a lazy kitten who would play only in 5- or 10-minute spurts accompanied by loud wheezing, I had no idea it could happen.

At first, I chalked it up to the bad weather. It was August in California, which meant the state was on fire. No one felt much like doing anything in the hot, smoky haze. Sparrow was still eating, drinking, using the litter box, and cuddling happily with my roommate’s cat. Once things cooled off, she’d be fine.

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Klio comforts Sparrow on a bad breathing day; usually they ignore each other. Photo by Kyla Cathey

She wasn’t, though. Instead, she began coughing like she had a hairball, but nothing came up. Instead of being delighted that I didn’t have to clean up a gross, gunky mess, I began to worry that something was seriously wrong with my cat.

So I scheduled a vet appointment. In the meantime, like all Internet hypochondriacs, I hit the web and stumbled across Feline Asthma with Fritz the Brave. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fantastic site for anyone with an asthma cat. It also left me convinced Sparrow had feline asthma.

Score one for Internet hypochondria, because for probably the first time, it ended up being right. The vet heard my description of Sparrow’s cough, ordered X-rays, and pointed out the telltale donut-shaped scarring. Asthma. Luckily, it wasn’t bad yet, and we were able to get that particular flare under control pretty quickly.

It’s still weird, though.

2. Cats can use inhalers

Yes, even though inhalers are shaped all wrong for furry little mouths, cats can use them.

Sparrow’s asthma flares were often triggered by allergies, so I learned to watch for symptoms and get her nose drops or azithromycin when she seemed snorty and sniffly. I tried to remove triggers such as dusty cat litter and scented candles from her environment. Yes, even the pumpkin spice ones.

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Sparrow’s AeroKat system and a fresh Flovent HFA inhaler. Photo by Kyla Cathey.

For a few years, she did pretty well without any kind of daily asthma medication, and with the occasional round of bronchodilators when things got wheezy. This was a huge relief, because I learned that many cats with asthma eventually have to go on steroids. Although cats are generally pretty resistant to side effects from steroids, long-term steroid use can lead to problems such as diabetes, and I really didn’t want to be giving Sparrow insulin shots on top of everything else.

So the first time she had a stubborn flare and her vet suggested a steroid shot, I was devastated. It worked then, but a few months later, she needed another one, and her wheezing was back within weeks.

That was when her vet suggested an inhaler.

“You could get the AeroKat and see if she’ll use it before you order the inhaler,” she told me. “Some cats won’t.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “That sounds great.”

Then I went home and looked up what on earth an AeroKat was.

An AeroKat is essentially a tube that fits over the cat’s nose and mouth. An inhaler fits in the other end. You squeeze the inhaler to release a puff, and if your cat doesn’t panic and scratch you before fleeing, you watch a little green flap to count how many breaths they take.

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Sparrow sometimes tries — and fails — to hide at inhaler time. Photo by Kyla Cathey

The nice thing about inhaled steroids? They target the lungs. While there are still risks, they’re much rarer and usually less of an issue than those caused by oral, systemic steroids.

When you go to the pharmacy for the inhaler, be prepared for a strange conversation with the pharmacist.

“Is your daughter here? I should go over how to use the inhaler with her, too.”

“No, she won’t be able to do it by herself.”

“It says here that she’s seven?”

“She is, but she’s a cat.”

“Uh … cats can use inhalers?”

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“Fine, get it over with.” Photo by Kyla Cathey.

Luckily, Sparrow is fine with an inhaler. While she occasionally still needs a shot to give things a boost, like in August when California is on fire, the inhaler has kept her asthma well under control for a couple of years now.

3. Quality of life can still be good

Having asthma hasn’t limited Sparrow much. In fact, aside from the bad breathing days, she really doesn’t seem to care.

I’ve been lucky. Sparrow’s asthma has been progressive, but it was very mild to begin with, and she has only rarely had a breathing crisis that required an immediate vet visit. Not every cat is so lucky.

This is how I know she’s tired of photo sessions. Photo by Kyla Cathey.

Still, for a lot of asthma cats, finding a care regimen that works will help them lead full lives, and new strides are being made all the time.

It’s not all roses (in fact, I try to keep Sparrow away from roses). She gets pretty lethargic on days with bad air quality, and her inhaler hasn’t prevented her from struggling when it’s smoky or the pollen count is high. But she still chases my other cats, begs for treats, goes for walks outside where she finds strangers to give her attention, eats the corners off of any books I leave out, and generally rules my apartment with a fluffy, clawed fist.

4. It’s expensive

It has also been pricy at times — corticosteroid inhalers aren’t cheap, and last time I checked, pet insurance companies won’t cover cats with asthma. Sparrow also sees the vet a lot more often than my other two cats. But as long as she’s still happy, mostly healthy, and enjoying life, it’s worth it to me. I’m so grateful to her vet, and to the veterinarians who research animal illnesses like this one, for making it possible.

About the author: Kyla Cathey is a writer from Galt, California, with three wonderful cats and a rad collection of cat figurines. She has interests other than cats, like cacti, tea, speculative fiction and history. She writes for the Lodi News-Sentinel and spams Instagram every few weeks.