When It Isn’t a Hairball: How I Learned My Cat Has Asthma


“Ugh! Hairball,” I thought. I had been playing with my newly adopted cat, Smudge. As I swung a toy over his head, he moved to catch it and then suddenly stopped. Crouching down low, he extended his neck and began coughing, swaying his head from side to side.

I waited for him to produce the hairball but he never did. After about a minute, he seemed to recover and was ready to play again.

I thought little of it at the time. But as the days passed, I became more concerned. I noticed that most play sessions led to a nonproductive coughing fit. And even if they didn’t, he ended up in an open-mouth pant after only a short time.

Still, I rationalized it. For the last year, he had been living in a veterinary clinic as a blood donor kitty. I had no idea how much exercise he’d gotten, so maybe he was out of shape. Plus, as a blood donor, he’d gotten a thorough work-up to ensure that he was healthy. I was certain I had nothing to worry about.

A month later, spring was in full swing and our windows were open much of the time. That’s when the spontaneous episodes started. Smudge would awaken from a sound sleep and begin coughing and wheezing. He also began to scratch and groom more. Maybe he had allergies. I made a vet appointment.

Our vet is a truly awesome guy. He is compassionate, thorough, and open-minded — three things you want in a veterinarian. I explained my concerns and what I had witnessed. He felt that since there was only one episode a day and Smudge was also itchy, it was probably allergies. He suggested we try an antihistamine.

The itching subsided a bit but the episodes continued. I tried not to freak out which, to be honest, I tend to do at the slightest little thing when it comes to the furkids. “Only allergies,” I kept telling myself, “It’s only allergies.” And I really had no reason to doubt this. Smudge’s episodes got better in the summer, quite a bit worse in the fall, and then improved greatly in the winter, following the pattern that most allergies take. See? Just allergies.

However, in the meantime, he had developed a nasty chin infection due to feline acne. Because the acne and the infection stubbornly resisted any and all conventional treatments, our vet referred us to a veterinary dermatologist, Dr. Campbell.

Even with the help of a specialist, it took many months to get Smudge’s chin problems under control. By this time, it was spring again and Smudge’s itchiness and coughing had kicked in full force, and they both seemed worse than the year before. I brought it up to Dr. Campbell who suggested that we consider allergy testing and immunotherapy (allergy shots) for the itching. Like our regular vet, she wasn’t too concerned about Smudge’s coughing. However, since he would have to be sedated for the testing, she wanted to get x-rays to rule out a heart condition. So back to our regular vet we went.

Now, during all this time, I hadn’t been sitting idly by. Somewhere I remembered reading about feline asthma and had started doing my own research. Smudge’s symptoms fit perfectly with the classical asthma presentation: exercise intolerance, unproductive cough while crouched low and swaying the head from side to side. In addition, like humans, asthma in cats is caused by a hypersensitivity to environmental allergens, which we already knew Smudge had.

Convinced that Smudge was asthmatic, I asked our vet to not only look at the heart on the x-rays, but also the lungs. Sure enough, Smudge displayed the tell-tale “doughnut” shapes in his lungs, indicating inflammation in the airways.

As relieved as I was to have a definitive diagnosis, I was also overwhelmed and scared. Like asthmatic humans, asthmatic cats can have a severe respiratory crisis at any time and die, so I knew we needed to start treatment right away. After researching our options, I decided to try daily inhaled medication in addition to allergy shots. The inhaled medication (Flovent, the same thing humans use) would take care of the inflammation and symptoms, while the allergy shots would tackle the underlying cause.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “How exactly do you get a cat to use an inhaler?”

We use a device called an Aerokat. It was originally designed for use with infants and then modified for animals. The inhaler fits in one end, you puff the medicine into the chamber, and the cat breathes out the mask at the other end. While it may seem impossible to get a cat used to such a contraption, thousands of asthmatic kitties all over the world use them every day. Smudge was a champion “puffer” after only a few tries and he now comes to get me if I’m late with his puffs. (Some people say it’s probably because he has associated the puffs with feeling better. I think it’s because he has associated the puffs with lots of treats. Whatever works.)

Since starting this regimen in April, Smudge has had only one minor coughing episode. He runs and jumps and plays with his toys with no effort at all. He is much less itchy and all in all, is happier and more comfortable. And that’s a huge relief to all of us.

One final note: Some may be quick to blame our veterinarian for not immediately thinking of or testing Smudge for feline asthma. In my research, I learned that many vets really don’t know that much about it and it is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. The fact is, veterinarians have to know a little about a whole lot of things. They simply can’t know a whole lot about everything.

And that’s the most important lesson I learned from this: listen to your gut and advocate for your pets. I know my pets better than anyone and I knew something was wrong with Smudge. If you suspect your cat has asthma — or any other ailment — don’t be afraid to push, to ask questions, and to suggest a course of action. If you have a great vet like I do, he or she will be more than willing to work with you to ensure the health and happiness of your kitty.

About the Author: Amber Carlton is owned by two cats and two dogs (all rescues), and is affectionately (?) known as the crazy pet lady amongst her friends and family. She and her husband (the crazy pet man) live in colorful Colorado where they enjoy hiking, biking and camping. Amber owns Comma Hound Copywriting and also acts as typist and assistant for Mayzie’s Dog Blog. She encourages other crazy pet people to connect with her onTwitter or Facebook.

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