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Tracheobronchitis (Bronchitis, Bronchial Asthma) in Cats

By Ned F. Kuehn, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Section Chief, Internal Medicine, Michigan Veterinary Specialists ; Neil W. Dyer, DVM, MS, DACVP, Director and Pathologist, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, North Dakota State University ; Joe Hauptman, DVM, MS, DACVS, Professor of Surgery, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Michigan State University ; Stuart M. Taylor, PhD, BVMS, MRCVS, DECVP

Also see professional content regarding tracheobronchitis.

Tracheobronchitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the trachea and bronchial airways; it may also extend into the lungs. It is more likely to occur in cats already affected by respiratory disease or a disorder of the lungs or airways. Tracheobronchitis in cats can be caused by parasites, by diseases of the mouth and pharynx, or by chronic coughing related to heart or lung disease. Other causes include smoke inhalation and exposure to chemical fumes.

Spasms of coughing are the most prominent sign; it is most severe after rest or at the beginning of exercise. A slight fever may also be noted. The acute stage of bronchitis passes in 2 to 3 days, although the cough may persist for several weeks.

Bronchial asthma (allergic bronchitis) is a syndrome in cats with similarities to asthma in humans. Young cats and Siamese and Himalayan breeds are most often affected. The sudden development of asthma in older cats is extremely uncommon. The signs of bronchial asthma include shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing that may come and go. However, a chronic cough in older cats is often due to pneumonia (see Pneumonia in Cats). If shortness of breath is severe, bluish mucous membranes (signaling a lack of oxygen in the blood) may be seen.

The veterinarian’s diagnosis is made from the history, physical examination, and clinical signs and by ruling out other causes of coughing. Diagnostic tools include chest x-rays, use of an endoscope to view the bronchial tubes (bronchoscopy), and collection of biopsy and swab samples for laboratory analysis. These diagnostic tests may be needed in cases where the veterinarian’s initial treatment is not effective in providing relief.

In mild cases or those with a recent onset of signs, supportive therapy may be effective, but treatment of the underlying disease (if present) is also needed. Rest, warmth, and proper hygiene are important. If bacterial infection is present, broad-spectrum antibiotics may be prescribed. The veterinarian may perform or prescribe therapy such as use of a mist (nebulization) or steam from a hot shower to help loosen secretions, making them easier to cough up.