Treating Asthma In Cats: Medications, Efficacy, & Side Effects
Cat asthma is a respiratory condition in cats that is caused by inflammation in the airways. When exposed to a trigger or stress, an asthmatic cat has an immune response that constricts the airways. Coupled with swelling from inflammation, this response often leads to an asthma attack, a potentially life-threatening situation in which the cat has difficulty breathing
There is no ‘cure’ for cat asthma—it is a lifelong condition. However, there are several ways in which cat asthma can be treated and managed, from veterinarian-prescribed medications to diet and environment modification.
Medications For Cat Asthma
There are two main types of medications that are prescribed if a cat has been diagnosed with asthma: corticosteroids and/or bronchodilators. These are the same medications used to treat asthma in humans, but require different doses and administration in felines.
Corticosteroids (or glucocorticoids) are anti-inflammatory medications used to treat and manage the underlying causes of asthma1. Because asthma is a lifelong condition, corticosteroids should be taken routinely, even in the absence of symptoms, to manage asthma and prevent attacks. Corticosteroids are available as either systemic forms (those that affect the entire body), or inhaled forms (which target the airways directly).
In an emergency, your vet may use higher dose injectable or oral steroids to get an asthma attack under control. However, in the home environment, lower dose corticosteroids are used for daily disease management and should not be used to treat respiratory flare-ups or asthma attacks—bronchodilators should be used instead.
1. Systemic Corticosteroids
Systemic steroids are available in either injectable or oral (pill) form. Common oral corticosteroids prescribed for cat asthma include prednisone, prednisolone, and methylprednisolone. Prednisolone has higher bioavailability in cats and is generally preferred over prednisone2. Methylprednisolone (Depo-Medrol) is also a common injectable form of corticosteroid used to treat cat asthma3. These injections may be administered by your vet every few days to every few weeks depending on the severity of your cat’s asthma.
Administering Systemic Corticosteroids
Injections may be administered by your vet every few days to every few weeks depending on the severity of your cat’s asthma. Pills can be given by owners but are notoriously difficult to administer to cats, and often require force-feeding or attempting to hide pills in food.
Side Effects Of Systemic Corticosteroids
These types of corticosteroids must first be metabolized by the cat’s body, meaning that other organs can be affected in addition to the lungs and airways. Because of this, systemic steroid use can lead to many potential side effects, such as:
- Increased thirst and loss of bladder control
- Lethargy and no energy to play
- Immune suppression and increased risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs), and bacterial and fungal infections
- Behavioral changes, including aggression
- Weight gain
- Vomiting, diarrhea
- Ulceration of the digestive tract
- Cushings disease4
An additional drawback of injectable corticosteroids is that they can lose their efficacy over time, meaning the drug will need to be administered more frequently5. This can end up being quite costly for the pet owner.
Because of the risk of side effects, systemic steroids should not be used for long-term disease control.
2. Inhaled Corticosteroids
Inhaled medications deliver the drug directly to the lungs for effective results while using a lower dose of medication. The risk of side effects from corticosteroids is significantly reduced when using inhaled medication as it does not need to be processed by the body before reaching the lungs.
Inhaled corticosteroids, such as fluticasone (sold as Flovent HFA or Flixotide), are effective in treating inflammation associated with cat asthma. These medications are often taken once or twice daily to help control inflammation in the lungs.
Administering Inhaled Medications
When using inhaled medications, an aerosol chamber with a special mask that has been designed specifically for cats (such as the AEROKAT chamber) is required to help the cat breathe in the entire dose of medicine. Using the chamber and mask is easy and well accepted by cats, which is often surprising to pet parents.
Inhaled medications are safe for long term management of asthma and are considered the standard treatment choice for human children with asthma. For chronic conditions, inhaled corticosteroids should be used regularly, even in the absence of symptoms to manage the condition and keep airway inflammation down. Using inhaled steroids over other methods (such as pills or injections) help your cat maintain their playfulness and overall quality of life, so they remain a happy and active member of your family.
Bronchodilators are medications used to expand the airways6. They are commonly referred to as rescue medications because they are usually administered in the event of an asthma attack. These medications are often used in emergency situations rather than ongoing disease management. They have rapid action on the airways but their effects are generally short-lived and do not target the underlying inflammation.
Bronchodilators for cat asthma are also available in systemic and inhaled forms.
1. Systemic Bronchodilators
Systemic bronchodilators are available in oral or injectable form. Oral bronchodilators are difficult to administer to a cat in distress, as they may not be able to swallow a pill and must first be metabolized by the body before they take effect7. In these instances, an alternative form of bronchodilator is needed.
Bronchodilators are not often prescribed as injections for use at home. In emergency situations, terbutaline is a fast-acting medication that can be administered by a veterinarian to dilate the airways during severe, life-threatening asthma attacks8.
Side Effects Of Systemic Bronchodilators
Unfortunately, this medication can bring some unwanted side effects. Because epinephrine is a hormone that stimulates the fight-or-flight response, it can cause:
- Feelings of fear or anxiety
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure9
2. Inhaled Bronchodilators
Salbutamol, also known as albuterol, is an inhaled bronchodilator. It is often referred to by the brand names ProAir or Ventolin. These medications are fast-acting and can help a cat suffering an asthma attack within 5-10 minutes of receiving the dose.
As with corticosteroids, the risk of side effects from bronchodilators is significantly reduced when using inhaled medication. When inhaled, it does not need to be processed by the body before reaching the lungs, leading to quick relief for your cat.
An aerosol chamber (such as the AEROKAT chamber) must be used with the inhaler to help the cat breathe in the entire dose of medicine. During an attack, your cat’s breathing will be faster and shallower so it is important to use a chamber that can hold the medication long enough for your cat to inhale the dose. Using the chamber and mask is easy, and much less stress on both you and your cat compared to pills or injections. Inhaled bronchodilators can be administered at home or on the go, wherever and whenever your cat is experiencing an asthma attack or flare-up.
Other Methods For Managing Cat Asthma
In addition to corticosteroid and bronchodilator medication, there are ways to help manage cat asthma at home. Many of these strategies focus on controlling asthma attack triggers rather than the condition itself. There is little evidence to show these methods are effective as standalone treatments. Medication should always be the first line of treatment for cat asthma.
These methods may have a positive impact on inflammation and may help to prevent the onset of asthma attacks when used in conjunction with medication.
In some instances, antihistamines may be prescribed if the cat has significant allergies causing asthma attacks. Limited evidence is available to support antihistamines as a standalone treatment for cat asthma10.
- Follow a low allergen diet
- Manage obesity
Feeding your cat a low-allergen diet may help to reduce incidences of asthma attacks. Ask your vet for recommendations before switching your cat’s food.
Overweight or obese cats may already have breathing difficulties that worsen asthma symptoms11. Modification to your cat’s diet based on recommendations by your vet may help keep your cat’s weight in check.
- Ensure the cat’s environment is well ventilated, smoke-free, and clean
- Change air filters on a regular basis
- Avoid using fragrances, aerosols, and harsh chemicals
- Use unscented, low dust cat litter
Although there are ways to modify your cat’s environment to reduce the risk of asthma attacks, it is still important to take your cat to the vet. Medication is an important and potentially life-saving treatment for cat asthma. Talk with your vet about inhaled medications and how the AEROKAT chamber can help your cat live a happy and normal life.
1 "Treatment of Feline Lower Airway Disease" Today's Veterinary Practice. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/treatment-of-feline-lower-airway-disease/
2 C. A. Graham‐Mize, E. J. Rosser. "Bioavailability and activity of prednisone and prednisolone in the feline patient." Veterinary Dermatology 15(1). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-3164.2004.00410_2-6.x
3 "Methyl Prednisolone" PetMD. https://www.petmd.com/pet-medication/methyl-prednisolone
5 Reinero, Carol. "Treatment of Feline Allergic Asthma" American Veterinarian. https://www.americanveterinarian.com/journals/amvet/2018/october2018/treatment-of-feline-allergic-asthma
6 "Treatment of Feline Lower Airway Disease" Today's Veterinary Practice. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/treatment-of-feline-lower-airway-disease/
7 Reinero, Carol. "Treatment of Feline Allergic Asthma" American Veterinarian. https://www.americanveterinarian.com/journals/amvet/2018/october2018/treatment-of-feline-allergic-asthma
8 "Feline Asthma" Mar Vista Animal Medical Centre. https://www.marvistavet.com/feline-asthma.pml
9 "Epinephrine (Adrenalin Chloride®) for Dogs and Cats" PetPlace. https://www.petplace.com/article/drug-library/drug-library/library/epinephrine-adrenalin-chloride-for-dogs-and-cats/
10 "Asthma in Cats" International Cat Care. https://icatcare.org/advice/cat-health/asthma-cats