Is Your Cat Wheezing? The Signs of Feline Asthma vs Hairballs


Feline asthma and hairballs are two common health issues that affect cats. Both conditions can cause similar symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and vomiting, making it difficult for cat owners to distinguish between the two. However, asthma and hairballs have different underlying causes and require different treatments. It’s important to understand the differences between these conditions so you can get your cat the right care. This article will go over the key symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatments for feline asthma versus hairballs. We’ll also cover when you should see a veterinarian. Properly identifying whether your cat has asthma or hairballs allows you to manage your cat’s health most effectively.

Symptoms of Feline Asthma

Asthma in cats can cause several noticeable symptoms. The most common signs of feline asthma include:

  • Wheezing – This whistling sound while breathing is a classic symptom of narrowed airways.
  • Coughing or gagging – Cats may cough frequently or gag as if trying to bring up a hairball.
  • Open-mouth breathing – Asthmatic cats often breathe with their mouths open to maximize airflow.
  • Rapid breathing – The chest may move in and out quickly as the cat struggles to get enough air.
  • Difficulty breathing – Signs include flared nostrils, breathing with an abdominal effort, or hunched posture.
  • Lethargy – Asthmatic cats may seem tired or inactive due to decreased oxygen levels.
  • Lip smacking – Cats may smack their lips to increase saliva as dry mouth often accompanies asthma.

If a cat is displaying these symptoms, especially coughing, wheezing or open-mouth breathing, feline asthma is a strong possibility. Getting a veterinary diagnosis is important to rule out other conditions and begin treatment.

Symptoms of Hairballs

The most common symptoms of hairballs in cats include coughing, gagging, retching and vomiting as the cat tries to expel the hairball from its stomach. Cats will often make loud hacking or gagging noises as they try to cough up the hairball. They may also have open-mouth gagging or seem to be retching. Vomiting is another very common sign, and cats will often vomit up hairballs that are cylindrical in shape or tubular masses of undigested hair.

In addition to coughing and vomiting, other symptoms include lethargy, decreased appetite, constipation or diarrhea. The hairball may obstruct the gastrointestinal tract, leading to loss of appetite. Cats may also exhibit signs of distress such as restlessness, lip licking or may strain while defecating if the hairball is affecting bowel movements.

If the hairball passes through the intestines and is excreted in the feces, symptoms may include strained or difficult defecation and the presence of tubular segments in the feces. In severe cases, a large hairball may cause more serious gastrointestinal obstruction, resulting in symptoms like vomiting with bile or yellow fluid or severe lethargy and distress.

Causes of Feline Asthma

Asthma in cats is often caused by allergies or hypersensitivities to things in their environment. The most common causes include:

  • Allergens – Substances like pollen, mold spores, house dust mites, and flea saliva can trigger an allergic response in some cats that leads to asthma symptoms.
  • Air pollution and smoke – Cigarette smoke, air fresheners, scented candles, and vehicle exhaust can irritate a cat’s respiratory tract and induce asthma flare-ups.
  • Dust – Dust from litter boxes, carpeting, upholstery, and bedding contains allergens and particles that can worsen feline asthma when inhaled.
  • Infections – Bacterial, viral, and parasitic respiratory infections may damage the lungs and airways, increasing a cat’s susceptibility to asthma.

Asthma is thought to be an abnormal reaction of a cat’s immune system to harmless substances in the environment. This causes chronic inflammation and sensitivity in the airways, making breathing difficult. While the exact cause is often unknown, keeping the home environment clean and avoiding triggers can help control symptoms.


Causes of Hairballs

Hairballs occur when a cat ingests hair while grooming itself and the hair accumulates in the stomach instead of passing through the digestive system. There are two main causes of hairballs in cats:

Excessive grooming – Cats spend up to 50% of their waking hours grooming themselves, ingesting loose hair in the process. Excessive grooming and licking can lead to larger amounts of hair being swallowed. This is especially common in long-haired cat breeds. The more a cat grooms, the more hair gets trapped internally (VCA Animal Hospitals).

Swallowing hair – Normally, swallowed hair should pass through the digestive tract. But sometimes it can collect in the stomach and form a hairball that is too large to pass through the intestines. Persian cats and other long-haired breeds are prone to this issue due to their thick coats (Cornell Feline Health Center).

Diagnosing Feline Asthma

There are several methods veterinarians use to diagnose feline asthma, including:

Medical History – The vet will ask about your cat’s symptoms and when they occur to help determine if asthma is likely. Wheezing, coughing, and respiratory distress that occurs intermittently can point to asthma.

X-rays – Radiographs of the chest can reveal narrowed airways and overinflated lungs characteristic of asthma. X-rays also help rule out other lung issues.

Allergy Testing – Blood tests and intradermal skin testing can check for allergies triggering asthma flares. Common feline asthma triggers include dust mites, pollen, mold, and cigarette smoke.

Bronchoscopy – Using an endoscope with a camera inserted in the airway allows visual confirmation of inflamed, narrowed bronchial tubes consistent with asthma.

Peak Flow Monitoring – Measuring peak expiratory airflow rates can confirm intermittent airway obstruction and monitor lung function over time.

Response to Treatment – If steroids quickly relieve respiratory symptoms, it supports an asthma diagnosis. X-rays may be repeated after treatment to verify improvement.

Diagnosing Hairballs

There are a few ways a veterinarian can diagnose hairballs in cats:

Medical history – The vet will ask about the cat’s symptoms, especially coughing, gagging, vomiting, constipation, or difficulty defecating. Knowing the cat’s grooming habits and how much hair they ingest can also help diagnose hairballs.

Physical exam and palpation – By feeling the cat’s abdomen, the vet can sometimes detect obstructions caused by hairballs. They’ll check for tenderness, masses, fluid buildup, or enlarged organs that may indicate blockages.

X-rays – Radiographs can reveal the location and size of hairball obstructions in the gastrointestinal tract. This helps locate blockages and determine the best treatment approach.[1]

In some cases, additional tests like bloodwork, ultrasounds, or endoscopies may be recommended. The vet will rule out any underlying conditions before determining the cause as hairballs.

Treating Feline Asthma

There are several medications and management strategies used to treat feline asthma. Corticosteroids like prednisolone are commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation in the lungs. They work by suppressing the immune system and reducing mucus production. According to Cornell University, corticosteroids are considered one of the most effective treatments for feline asthma. However, long-term use can have side effects like increased thirst, urination, and appetite.

Bronchodilators, such as albuterol, are often combined with corticosteroids to open up the airways and make breathing easier. These medications provide quick relief but may not be as effective for long-term control. Allergen avoidance and managing environmental triggers are also important parts of managing feline asthma. This can involve using high efficiency filters, keeping the cat indoors, and limiting exposure to cigarette smoke, dust, and other irritants (Cornell Feline Health Center).

According to Today’s Veterinary Practice, methylxanthines like theophylline are also sometimes used to treat feline asthma. Other treatment options may include immunotherapy, antibiotics if there is secondary infection, and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Working closely with your veterinarian is important to develop the most effective treatment plan for your individual cat’s asthma.

Treating Hairballs

There are several ways to treat and prevent hairballs in cats:

Grooming – Regular grooming and brushing can help remove loose hair and prevent swallowing. Use a comb or slicker brush
designed for cats. Focus on areas prone to matting like the tummy, behind the legs, and base of the tail.

Lubricants – Liquid paraffin oils or petroleum jelly can help lubricate the GI tract to ease passing of hairballs. Products like Laxatone or Petromalt are veterinarian-approved. Give the recommended dosage before meals.

Diet Change – High-fiber diets and foods help move hair through the digestive tract. Add a spoonful of pumpkin, mashed sweet potato, or canned pumpkin cat food. Omega oils like fish oil also help. Ask your vet for diet tips.

When to See a Vet

If your cat is showing signs of difficulty breathing, lethargy, vomiting, or unexplained weight loss, it’s important to see a vet as soon as possible. These symptoms could indicate a serious underlying health issue like asthma, heart disease, or something obstructing their airway.

Specifically, you should take your cat to the vet right away if you notice any of the following:

  • Labored breathing or panting
  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Stretching the neck out to breathe
  • Blue tinge to gums or tongue
  • Not eating or drinking normally
  • Lethargy or reduced activity
  • Vomiting or gagging
  • Weight loss

Breathing difficulties can come on very quickly in cats, so don’t wait to see if symptoms improve on their own. The earlier you can get treatment for your cat, the better the outcome is likely to be.

If your cat is having an asthma attack or a foreign object stuck in their airway, immediate veterinary care may be necessary to save their life. Don’t try home remedies in an emergency situation – go straight to the vet. With prompt treatment, many cats with breathing troubles can recover well.

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