Cat Respiratory Disease
Sometimes we notice our cats coughing and sneezing. Is it something to worry about? Do cats get colds like humans do? How does one know if it is serious? How long should one wait before bringing the cat to the vet? What are other signs of respiratory disease in cats? What causes these diseases?
Like in humans, there are many causes of coughing and sneezing in the cat. It may be due to environmental irritants, such as dust or allergens. Perhaps the cat’s litter is dusty, or he/she may be allergic to something in the environment. Aerosol air fresheners or disinfectants may also irritate a cat’s throat if the smell is too strong or if the cat walks on wet, freshly sprayed surfaces and subsequently licks his/her paws. Therefore, check the litter and try to reduce strong chemical scents in the air. Remember that a cat’s sense of smell is many times more sensitive than a human’s.
Coughing and sneezing may also be due to an upper respiratory infection (URI), and may be combined with purulent discharge from the nose, mouth and/or eyes. For more information about URIs in cats, visit http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-catcolds.htm and http://www.pets.ca/encyclopedia/upper_respinfection_cat.htm
If a cat is occasionally coughing or sneezing, but has no other signs of infection (such as watery eyes, discharge from the nose or mouth, wheezing, lethargy, weakness, inappetance (reduced appetite), or depression), you may monitor the cat for a few days to see if it improves on its own. If it persists for longer than a few days, or if the condition worsens, it is best to visit your veterinarian.
Most cat owners are aware of their pet’s normal daily behaviour and activity level. However, how many are aware of their cat’s normal breathing pattern? A cat’s normal respiratory rate or breathing pattern may be difficult to assess, because of how well a cat can compensate and ‘hide’ disease. An owner may not even realize that their cat is having respiratory difficulties for several days. The laid-back lifestyle or the long haired coats of some cats make it difficult for some owners to assess their cat’s breathing pattern.
What constitutes a serious disease? The disease is considered mild if the cat is sneezing with the occasional nasal discharge. However, if the cat is showing open-mouthed breathing, weakness or severe coughing, this is considered severe respiratory distress and veterinary attention should be sought as soon as possible.
There are a wide range of causes for respiratory disease in cats, including tracheal obstructions, infections, parasites, asthma, heart disease, allergies, cancer, and trauma.
Balls, strings, or other foreign objects may get stuck in a cat’s trachea, causing coughing and/or vomiting. Viral infections, such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) may cause fluid build-up around the lungs due to leakage from blood vessels. Viral diseases may compromise the cat’s immune system and make them more susceptible to bacterial infection. Bacterial or fungal invasion of the lungs may cause pneumonia. Parasites such as lungworm cause coughing and lethargy, although they are less common in the cat compared to other species. Similar to humans, severe asthmatic attacks will cause breathing problems as well. Heart disease may cause pleural effusion (fluid accumulation around the lungs), which makes it hard for the lungs to inflate. Pulmonary emboli (blood clot in the lungs) can cause inflammation in the lungs and subsequently compromise lung function. Severe anemia (low red blood cell count) may also contribute to breathing difficulties. Allergy-induced pneumonitis may cause a chronic cough. Traumatic injuries, such as being hit by a car or falling, can result in a condition called pneumothorax (air in the thorax) which collapses the lungs and makes breathing difficult. Trauma may also cause a diaphragmatic hernia (hole in the diaphragm allowing abdominal contents to leak into the thorax), which may compress the lungs. Tumours may occur at any location in the respiratory tract, including the nose, mouth, larynx, trachea, and lungs. Clinical signs with cancer will vary. Tracheal collapse, although rare in cats, will also cause respiratory distress. Therefore, the list of causes can be overwhelming, and it is up to the veterinarian to help narrow things down.
How is respiratory disease diagnosed? Often the first diagnostic instrument that a veterinarian will use is a stethoscope. He/she will listen for abnormal lung sounds (such as fluid in the lungs), or abnormal heart sounds (indicating heart disease). X-rays of the cat’s chest will be the next diagnostic tool. The veterinarian will evaluate the chest for pneumonia, fluid accumulation, heart abnormalities, evidence of foreign bodies (such as an object stuck in the trachea), diaphragmatic hernias, or other signs of trauma. While the cat is in clinic, the cat would be placed into a tank where it can receive oxygen to facilitate breathing because the cat is already having difficulty breathing and most cats would be stressed coming into the clinic. Further diagnostics (such as ultrasound) may be recommended depending on the findings on the x-rays.
If fluid is found within the chest, the veterinarian will collect a sample of the fluid for analysis. The fluid will be analyzed for colour, opacity, protein levels and cellular content. The type of fluid will give an indication of the underlying cause of the disease, such as heart failure, tumours, infection, or leakage of chyle into the thorax.
Computed tomography (CT) scans may also be available as a diagnostic tool. It can be used in instances where ultrasound cannot provide a diagnosis, as CT technology is not impaired by air or fluid. For example, CT scans can help identify lung tumours which can be removed surgically.
If a cat is in respiratory distress due to fluid in the lungs, removing some of that fluid will provide immediate relief. The veterinarian will use a chest tap and/or chest drain. Once the cat has been stabilized, other treatments can be initiated to address the underlying problem.
The cat’s respiratory system is very delicate, and if diseased, can quickly progress to a state of emergency. Therefore, it is important to observe your cat’s normal respiratory patterns so you can recognize abnormalities before it becomes too serious.
By – Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer