Understanding Respiratory Allergies in Your Cat or Dog

cat scratching

The factors that affect your animal’s comfort and happiness are multitude. We commonly focus on how to enrich our animals’ lives by making sure they have stimulation and entertainment. We race home from work to make sure they are walked or fed before dark. We have cat sitters come over three times in a day so they won’t get lonely. We buy special treats to reward our dogs for shaking our hands. We turn on their favorite songs, paint their nails, comb their hair, and spend endless amounts of money on the only type of chicken stew they find tolerable. It is sometimes easy to forget, though, that simple things affect them greatly, and while we go to such great effort to care for them, it is easy to lose sight how often controllable allergies are the root of issues.

Both cats and dogs are affected by common allergens that may go unnoticed and cause irritability to their skin, their digestive system, their joints, and their overall comfort level and associated behaviors. I want to focus briefly on respiratory allergery, as it is a common and often undertreated disease that affects many animals, especially at key times of the year.

Feline Allergic Asthma/Canine Sterile Bronchitis

Most of our cats remain inside, so this is something that is a little more controllable. Cats that are exposed to allergens such as second-hand smoke, cleaning products, perfumes, remodeling debris, other cats and dogs visiting, and fleas can start to develop clinical signs similar to what you would see in humans with asthma. It may start as some mild wheezing (most people report snoring), then some mild exercise intolerance, and then a slow increase in respiratory rates that seem inappropriate to the usual. Coughing can occur.

Dogs tend to go outside and thus are exposed to more allergens at an early age. Though this can be helpful in increasing the immune system’s palate, it also can expose them to things about which they never would otherwise need to worry—decorative flowers, grasses, chemicals, firework debris, garbage, street water, exhaust, construction debris, etc. We see a lot of smaller animals prone to other respiratory issues (like our pugs and bulldogs) be especially sensitive to these issues. Dogs exhibit the same signs with the added, sometimes secondary, hack or cough that is more common.

Though this can start when animals are young, they usually start to develop issues on the second time around the season cycle. It also can sometimes start out of nowhere later in their life as their immune system becomes stimulated by new exposures or stresses (like moving). We see a lot of transplants from other states find their otherwise healthy cat that has never been exposed to a coat full of ragweed and is now triggered into an allergic event. Changing apartments to another part of the city, or simply moving into an area that might have recently gone under construction or been cleaned can also do this. Seasonal apartment cleaning is one of the more common factors in allergic dogs and cats. If you live in a building complex with shared air ducts, a neighbor smoking, cleaning, or redesigning their kitchen can cause issues.

Though treatment can be simple, it may take some work to properly diagnose allergies. There are many, more serious causes of respiratory issues so it is always recommended to have your cats and dogs seen to make sure there are not underlying issues also causing problems. Metabolic abnormalities, infections, heart disease, pain, among many issues can all cause similar clinical signs. Another key component to controlling these issues is to deal with them quickly. The inflammation secondary to allergies is a cellular event that can be controlled with anti-allergy medicine and anti-inflammatories (like temporary and very low doses of steroids). The longer allergies go untreated, the harder it is to come out of them, not to mention the longer your dog and cat will suffer through unneeded discomfort. Often, secondary infections come after the allergies. This must be addressed as a separate issue.

Tips to Help after Your Animal Is Diagnosed and Properly Treated

  • Change your heating and air-conditioner filters. If you do not know where your heating and/or air-conditioning filters, then they probably need to be changed.
  • Clean regularly, rather than go long periods of times without dusting, cleaning the floors, blankets, etc. This includes curtains, beddings, or anywhere you can imagine there might be an accumulation of dust and allergens.
  • Be mindful of things like hair spray, perfume, candles, fragrances, or anything that you can smell or by which you can be affected. You may have to give away your Ocean Mist Karma Boost incense burner.
  • If you smoke, consider not smoking in the house or with your animals present. Even if you smoke outside and come back in, remember that you probably still smell like smoke (any non-smoker will tell you that) and this can still cause issues with dogs and cats.
  • Get an air filter and place them in the areas that your animals frequent most often. You can get decent ones for under $100.
  • Keep an allergy journal to recognize when the issue arises. You may find that your dog has a hard time breathing three days after every visit to your cabin in Michigan. You may find that your cat has a harder time breathing and is restless every December (right around when you buy your tree, light your Chanukkah Candles, or turn on your heater).
  • Get treatment quickly. In general, allergy treatment is cheap and easy once we know the problem.  

Brett Grossman, DVM
Medical District Veterinary Clinic