The oxygen that we all need for life is breathed into the mouth and nasal pages where germs and debris are filtered out and humidifed before traveling down the trachea or windpipe, into the bronchi which is carpeted by fiber like projections called cilia that produce mucus which traps any remaining germs, smoke particles, and dust and transports them back up the system to be swallowed or coughed out.
The whole system is quite remarkable and I haven't even mentioned all the lymph nodes, tonsils and other specialized tissues that aid in identifying, trapping, and removing harmful particles, gases, allergens, virus', and other infectius agents to keep them from getting into the the distant tissues of the lungs where oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide.
The different parts of the respiratory system are indeed amazing, and remarkable in their ability to keep 99.99% of all foreign invaders from reaching the inner parts of the lungs... but the tissues making up the respiratory system are also very delicate and sophisticated... and that means a lot can go wrong. And if you stop to think about it, when bacteria, virus', and other microscopic organisms attack you need to imagine very large numbers... we and our pets are exposed to millions of individual organisms each day ... probably each minute... and even if only 0.001% of the organisms get past our nose, our acid like saliva, our tonsils, our sticky mucus, our cilia, and all our other defenses... that's still a lot of organisms. ten million x 0.001% is still equal to 100 little germs getting through the system
What to Expect at our Clinic if your pet is coughing, sneezing, has a runny nose, or has trouble breathing:
(Of course,Other Veterinarians Might approach similar cases differently)
A good exam and history: Pertinent history includes whether or not any other cats or dogs in your house or immediate neighborhood also have respiratory symptoms (some respiratory diseases are contagious to other animals of the same species, but USUALLY NOT contagious to other species)
Was the pet recently boarded or under stress? And as always when we go over a pet, we want to know about how long the problem has been going on, is it getting worse, is it only after exercise, is the appetite normal, is the energy level normal, and so on.
In addition to looking at the whole patient well, we will be checking carefully for nasal discharge, infected gums, swollen glands in the throat, and the swallowing reflex. We will also try to determine if the problem is truly respiratory or is it really a heart condition, or anemia, or a possible diaphragmatic hernia, heartworms, or a hairball (in addition to making cats gag or cough, sometimes hairballs ferment which causes a bloat and fever combination that makes cats look like they're having trouble breathing.) We will make sure there isn't a foreign body in the throat or a plant awn up the nose.
Once we're pretty sure the problem is respiratory, we will narrow it down to upper respiratory or lower lung disease. We will try to determine if the problem is infectious or allergic in nature.
If we think the problem is a simple cold or a fairly minor disease like kennel cough, we will probably treat the symptoms and wait the disease out as long as it doesn't get worse...but if the problem is a little more serious, we will recommend a respiratory lab work up. Here's what might be involved:
Laboratory and Radiographic Options appropriate for respiratory disease in cats and dogs:
Heartworm testing in both dogs AND cats: Heartworms are a common cause of respiratory problems in both dogs and cats, so if you haven't been giving heartworm preventive to your pets regularly we will probably run a heartworm test.
If by any chance you don't know that your pet should be taking once a month heartworm preventive, please click here for more information about this common disease and the inexpensive, chewable preventives that are available at veterinarians everywhere.
Leukemia and Aids Testing for cats: Unfortunately, both of these terrible diseases are common, especially in young and poorly vaccinated cats, so if the history and the symptoms fit, we will probably run screening tests for these diseases.
(just in case you're wondering, Aids disease in cats is similar but is NOT THE SAME as the AIDS disease in people.) For more information about these infectious diseases of cats; please go to our Cat Page.
Other Blood Work. As with other serious cases, we rely on the information we learn from a CBC (complete blood count) and Chemistry. The CBC, for example, gives us clues as to whether or not the respiratory problem is bacterial, viral, or allergic in nature.
Cultures: Some vets like to culture suspected infections before using antibiotics and others culture only if their first choice antibiotic isn't working. In some parts of the country, discharges and abscess' are sometimes fungal and not bacterial, so your vet may want to do a fungal culture. The problem with cultures is in addition to another expense, they take 3-21 days to get results back. In addition, they are not always accurate. Nonetheless, they are sometimes critical.
Endoscopy and TransTracheal Washes: Some vets like to get samples from the windpipe or bronchi in a procedure called a transtracheal wash which has the advantage of bypassing all the germs in the mouth and throat that are present normally and may not be the cause of the infection. Other vets use an endoscope to actually look inside the bronchi. These techniques are very useful, but the down side is that the needed equipment is expensive and the possibility for damage to sensitive lung tissue if done by someone who isn't experienced is possible, so I, personally, leave these more advanced diagnostic techniques to the specialists.
Radiographs: X rays of the chest can tell us a lot about the lungs and heart, so if the problem is lower lung disease, we will probably recommend radiographs of the chest.
Steroid Trial: This is not a common test but it is used IF we think your cat has asthma or other allergic respiratory disease. Basically we suspect a diagnosis of asthma or similar allergies if we can't find anything else but steroids give a lot of relief. The most common type of steroid used is either prednisone tablets or methylprednisolone Injection. Go to the Medication section for more information on steroids and their possible side effects.
Treatment Considerations and Options for Respiratory Disease in Cats and Dogs:
Antibiotics: Most respiratory diseases are at least partly caused by bacteria and prior to the invention and use of antibiotics not that long ago, respiratory disease was a very common way to die.
Anti-Fungal Medications: Luckily, respiratory fungal infections are rare in our area of the country, but if diagnosed; I refer these cases to a specialist. Respiratory Fungal Infections are complicated by being possibly contagious to people, often difficult to cure, and the needed medications are both expensive and potentially dangerous.
Anti-histamines: Somewhat helpful for some respiratory problems so we will sometimes try them. I usually use chlorpheniramine or benadryl which are very inexpensive. One of the minor problems of using antihistamines in pets is that it's hard to tell if they're a little lethargic from the disease or the medication.
Oxygen Therapy: Very helpful for severe lung congestion but difficult to administer in pets unless small enough to fit inside an incubator or willing to hold still for a nose cone. Also, more appropriate for emergency respiratory relief; not home treatment.
Vaporizers: At home, some badly congested pets respond well to being put into a small room such as a bathroom with a vaporizer. If needed, a little Vick's Vapor Rub (or similar) on the nose will open up clogged up nasal passages which is important in cat's because they won't eat if they can't smell, but cats hate vapor rub and will probably salivate like crazy it they lick it. Use very little.
Cough Tablets and Suppressants: Just like in human medicine we have inexpensive, mildly effective cough suppressants and fairly expensive strong cough suppressants if needed. I don't use these medications much except with Kennel Cough in dogs. I often tell people to try any reasonable thing that the dog likes that soothes the throat such as ice cream, ice water, and for the adventurous; a little Rock 'N Rye whisky. Don't let your dog drink and drive.
Supportive Care: It's important that sick animals eat and are kept warm and that we control any secondary diarrhea and so forth to help maximize their chances of a quick recovery. So in addition to some of the more obvious medications listed above, we may also recommend special diets, vitamins and supplements etc