Q:Is my cat coughing or choking?
My small three-year-old female cat, who weighs just under seven pounds, will suddenly go through what seems like a coughing/choking spell. She crouches low to the floor and struggles through an episode. Then she stands up and goes about her regular business.
It started out happening perhaps every other month but now it happens daily — and sometimes more than once a day. Our veterinarian says it could be allergies, but it’s difficult for me to discern. She and her brother are best friends, but he’s almost twice her size and goes for her neck when they play. She gets away from him easily, but I’m concerned that she may be injured. What could be the problem?
– Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa
A: Dear Cassandra, You are describing the classic signs of chronic bronchitis (often referred to as asthma). Asthma is frequently diagnosed in young cats, causing constant, cyclic or seasonal cough. Patients are otherwise well and act normally except during the actual episodes of cough. Other less common causes of chronic cough include bacterial infections, parasitic infections (including heartworm) and heart disease. But by far, asthma is most common.
It is important to know that there are two very different forms of feline asthma. One, as your cat is demonstrating, involves only a recurrent cough. A second form (which may or may not be associated with cough) is the bronchoconstrictive form, a serious and potentially life-threatening condition.
Similar to humans with asthma, cats with this form experience constriction of muscles within the bronchial walls, causing airway obstruction. Cats with bronchoconstriction may demonstrate increased respiratory rate or effort, or open-mouthed breathing. These cats require immediate veterinary attention, and in severe cases, may die.
We cannot predict the natural course of all cases of feline asthma, but most with the coughing form never evolve into the life-threatening bronchoconstrictive form. That said, a reevaluation by your veterinarian is recommended.
Treatment may be considered appropriate if coughing events are now occurring on a daily basis. It most commonly involves the oral administration of a corticosteroid, with the dose tapered to find the lowest that controls the cough.
Michael Stone DVM, ACVIM
Clinical Assistant Professor
Cummings School of Veterinary
Medicine at Tufts University