Coughing Cats May Be Allergic to People, Vets Say

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 25, 2005

Furry housepets—especially felines—have long been blamed for allergies and breathing problems in people.

But now researchers at an animal hospital in Scotland say the discomfort can also work the other way around: Humans can trigger asthma attacks in cats.

Cigarette smoke, human dandruff, household dust, and certain types of litter create inflammation in cats' airways and worsen asthma, the veterinarians say.

Feline asthma is a common disease, with about 1 in 200 cats suffering from the condition. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Cats between the ages of one and five are most likely to develop asthma. Asian breeds, like Siamese cats, are also more prone to the disease.

But Nicki Reed, a veterinarian at the University of Edinburgh's Hospital for Small Animals, says the overall incident rate of asthma is increasing because more cats are being kept soley indoors.

"We find that bringing asthmatic cats into the hospital here and removing them from the standard triggers, like dust and smoke, can improve their condition," she said.

Coughing Kitties

Feline asthma isn't a new disease. It was first described in scientific literature more than 90 years ago, says veterinarian Philip Padrid of the Family Pet Animal Hospital in Chicago.

Reed, the University of Edinburgh vet, says that when a coughing cat is brought to the clinic, she must first establish if the cause is an infection, asthma, or something more sinister, like a lung mass.

To do this, Reed usually performs an x-ray, takes a lung fluid sample, and conducts a bronchcoscopy—an examination that uses a flexible microscope inserted into the cat's airway.

Most of the time, asthma is a mild disease, Reed says. But in some cases cats' lungs collapse or their ribs fracture due to difficulty breathing.

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