Bronchitis in Cats – Inflammation of Airway Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis And Treatments

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Defining Bronchitis in Cats

Bronchitis in cats, also called tracheobronchial irritation, is a condition that involves inflammation of a cat’s airways, called “bronchi,” and sometimes also involves inflammation of the trachea, commonly known as the “wind pipe”.

Bronchitis tends to cause cats to have a chronic cough that can’t be attributed to cancer, pneumonia, congestive heart failure or other conditions that typically lead to persistent coughing. The underlying cause of chronic feline bronchitis often is never discovered.

The condition usually is slowly progressive due to inflammatory damage to the lining of the airways. In severe cases, cats may develop increased lung resistance and a reduced ability to breathe normally. Bronchitis is fairly common in companion cats in the United States and throughout North America.

Unfortunately, it can mimic the symptoms of other feline respiratory tract diseases. Cat owners should be attuned to the sounds of their cat’s normal breathing, so that they can identify breathing abnormalities when they occur.

Causes of Bronchitis in Cats

Causes of Bronchitis in Cats

Feline bronchitis is a result of irritation and inflammation of the lining of a cat’s airways, which are called “bronchi.” When bronchitis occurs suddenly (acutely), it typically is caused by infectious organisms, such as viruses, bacteria or lung parasites.

Irritating airborne particles can also trigger a bout of acute bronchitis. Internal parasites, like lungworms and heartworms, can also cause bronchitis in cats. Heartworms cause chronic coughing, and chronic coughing will eventually damage the cat’s bronchial tubes.

Lungworms also inhabit the large bronchial airways during the course of their development, causing irritation and inflammation. Cats that live in households where their owners smoke often develop chronic bronchitis from exposure to second-hand smoke.

Cats with asthma frequently develop chronic bronchitis as a result of changes to the lining of their airways, which is caused by chronic coughing. These changes include inflammation, swelling, thickening and production of excess mucus in the respiratory tract.

Bronchitis obviously affects a cat’s respiratory system, but it can also adversely affect the cardiovascular system and less frequently the nervous system. Many times, the trigger of a cat’s bronchitis is never identified, which can be frustrating not only to the owner but also to the veterinary team.

Preventing Bronchitis in Cats

The best way to prevent a cat from getting bronchitis is to keep it away from the inhaled irritants which predispose it to developing feline asthma. These include chemicals, tobacco or fireplace smoke, air pollution (smog, smoke from wildfires or smoke from crop burning), carpet cleaners and deodorizers, heart and lung parasites, perfumes, deodorants, hair spray, room/air fresheners, kitty litter, fertilizer, home remodeling products, paint, landscaping materials, pesticides, pollen, grasses, weeds and other shrubbery, and animal dander (from new pets, boarding kennels or veterinary visits).

When a cat develops bronchitis, the only way to resolve the condition is to determine and address the underlying cause. Any number of diagnostic tools can be used in this effort, and there are a number of therapies that can help manage the symptoms of bronchitis.

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Bronchitis can become life threatening if it isn’t treated. Continual coughing can cause permanent damage to the sensitive lining of a cat’s upper airways. Excessive coughing may also interfere with a cat’s ability to eat properly.

Bronchitis can damage a cat’s immune system over time and predispose the animal to secondary bacterial and viral respiratory tract infections. Successful treatments for bronchitis are possible if the cause of the bronchitis is identified and directly addressed.

Symptoms of Bronchitis in Cats

Effects of Feline Bronchitis – From the Cat’s Point of View

Bronchitis is a medical condition that involves inflammation of one or more of the airways of the respiratory tract, which are called “bronchi.” Sometimes, it also involves inflammation of the trachea, commonly referred to as the “wind pipe.”

Bronchitis can come on suddenly, which is known as acute bronchitis, or it can show up very slowly, which is called chronic bronchitis. Cats with bronchitis don’t feel well and will cough, which is unusual for cats, even when they have something abnormal going on in their respiratory tract.

However, coughing is the hallmark of feline bronchitis. Cats with bronchitis usually have a dry, hacking, gagging cough which owners often misinterpret as attempts at vomiting or “coughing up fur balls.”

The cough can progressively become wet and productive. Cats with bronchitis tend to hunch down and stretch out their necks when they cough. Extreme coughing episodes often are associated with retching, vomiting and sneezing. Cats that cough because their trachea and bronchi are irritated will feel out-of-sorts and become lethargic and resistant to exercise.

Symptoms of Feline Bronchitis – What the Owner Sees

Coughing is the hallmark of feline bronchitis. Owners of affected cats may notice one or more of the following signs:

  • Cough – harsh, dry and hacking with acute-onset bronchitis
  • Cough – moist and bubbling with chronic bronchitis (may remain harsh, dry and hacking)
  • Gagging (often misinterpreted as “coughing up hairballs”)
  • Production of foamy saliva
  • Lethargy
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Decreased activity level
  • Runny nose
  • Lack of appetite (inappetance; anorexia)
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Weepy eyes (ocular discharge)
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Breathing difficulties (dyspnea)
  • Wheezing
  • Sneezing

Cats with bronchitis tend to hunch down into a squatting position and stretch their necks out when they cough. Coughing episodes come and go and often progressively worsen over time

Cats at Increased Risk of Developing Bronchitis

Bronchitis has been diagnosed in all breeds of cats. However, Siamese cats seem to be more prone to developing this disorder than other breeds. Female cats are diagnosed with bronchitis more often than are male cats.

Still, feline bronchitis is relatively common in males and females and cats of all breeds or mixed breeds. Any signs of respiratory distress in cats should always be taken seriously.

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Anytime a companion kitty has a dry or moist cough, runny eyes and/or nasal discharge, or if it is wheezing and sneezing repeatedly, it should be taken to a veterinarian for a thorough physical examination and evaluation.

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The owner should keep good records of when the coughing starts, how frequently it occurs and any other changes in the cat’s behavior, appetite and/or energy level. This information will be especially helpful to the attending veterinarian as she examines the cat and moves towards a diagnosis.

Diagnosing Bronchitis in Cats

Initial Evaluation

Bronchitis in cats can be caused by a number of different things. As a result, diagnosing this disorder may require a number of different tests to determine what the actual cause of the condition is.

A veterinarian presented with a cat that is coughing, lethargic and off its feed will get a thorough history from the cat’s owner, including about when the symptoms started and exactly what the cat has been doing that is different from its normal behavior.

The vet will perform a comprehensive physical examination of the kitty. The initial evaluation typically will also include drawing blood and taking urine samples for routine testing (these tests include a complete blood count [CBC], serum biochemistry profile [chem panel] and urinalysis).

Blood and urine tests can help identify underlying medical conditions such as feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus, which could adversely affect the cat’s immune system and predispose it to bronchial infection.

However, the results of these tests in cats with bronchitis are usually unremarkable. The veterinarian may also recommend taking fecal and/or blood samples to test for evidence of internal parasites, such as heartworms and/or lungworms, which might be the cause of the cat’s cough.

Heartworm tests are normally performed in areas where heartworm is pervasive (endemic areas), especially if the cat is both coughing and vomiting. While feline lungworms are rare in the United States, some veterinarians may still want to test for this parasite.

Diagnostic Procedures

The veterinary physical examination and history are essential in establishing a presumptive diagnosis of bronchial disease in cats. The remaining diagnostic procedures will be focused on trying to find the underlying reason for the cat’s upper airway irritation.

Thoracic radiographs (chest X-rays) are usually the first advanced diagnostic tool to evaluate a coughing cat. Cats with bronchitis will have bronchial thickening and other tell-tale signs that will alert the medical team to consider bronchitis as a cause of its symptoms.

An echocardiogram can be performed to rule out heart disease as a cause of the cat’s cough. Sampling of the cat’s airway secretions can help to establish the nature and extent of inflammation and/or infection. The samples must be taken from the lower airways and must be done under sedation or general anesthesia.

The samples can be taken through several different procedures, including transtracheal wash and bronchoalveolar lavage. Bronchoscopy is the preferred test for evaluating an animal’s airways. This involves inserting a small tube with a camera on its end down through the trachea.

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It allows the veterinarian to actually see the lining of the airways, and also lets her take samples. Your veterinarian can explain each of these procedures to you in greater detail. Arterial blood gas measurements can be taken to assess the amount of oxygen circulating in the cat’s blood stream if severe respiratory distress is present, although this is uncommon.

Treating Bronchitis in Cats

Goals of Treating Bronchitis in Cats

When a cat develops bronchitis, the only realistic way to resolve the condition is to determine and treat its underlying cause. Any number of diagnostic tools can be used in this effort, and there are a number of therapies that can help manage the symptoms of feline bronchitis.

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The goals of treating a cat with bronchitis are to eliminate the underlying cause of the condition, reduce the cat’s coughing (in cases of chronic bronchitis, complete suppression of coughing is usually unattainable), and at least slow down the progression of the disease.

Treatment Options for Cats With Bronchitis

Any breathing problems in cats should be addressed immediately. Cats do not normally pant or cough – and if they are panting or coughing, they should be taken to a veterinarian immediately. Respiratory disorders should be immediately assessed by a veterinarian.

Owners of cats with coughs or other breathing abnormalities should take steps to reduce any causes of stress in the cat’s environment. The cat should have a quiet, cool, comfortable and safe living environment with excellent nutritional support and supplemental oxygen if necessary.

Cats that have bronchitis caused by a viral infection can be treated with general supportive care and usually the infection will resolve on its own within 7 to 14 days. Antibiotics are quite effective to treat cats with bronchitis caused by bacterial organisms.

Cats with parasitic respiratory infections will need individualized treatments. Lungworms can be treated with anti-parasitic medications. Unfortunately, heartworms in cats are much more difficult to treat.

When bronchitis is caused by chronic feline asthma, which is quite common, the asthmatic condition will need to be treated before the bronchitis will go away. Treating asthma in cats is not always easy, because the asthmatic trigger can be very hard to detect.

During periods where a cat’s asthma becomes severe, anti-inflammatory medications and steroids may help. Again, cats with asthma do tend to develop chronic bronchitis. Unfortunately, feline bronchitis can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated.

Continual coughing can permanently damage the lining of the cat’s airways. Excessive coughing can also interfere with the cat’s ability to eat normally. Bronchitis can damage a cat’s immune system over time and predispose the animal to secondary bacterial and viral infections in the lining of its sensitive respiratory tract.

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