Since temperatures are increasing and shelter-in-place orders continue in most U.S. states, we’re all spending a lot more time outdoors with our pets. Longer walks outside can expose our pets (and us) to allergens and irritating particles in the air.

While it’s important to get out and enjoy the weather, it’s equally crucial to monitor our pets for signs of environmental distress. 

Asthma is an allergic disease of the lungs that is more frequently seen in horses and cats than in dogs. Like in people, asthma in horses and cats is caused by particles in the environment that trigger an inflammatory reaction, creating bronchial constrictions. 

There are two main types of asthma in horses: hay-associated asthma or pasture-associated asthma. The most common symptoms of horses suffering from either type of asthma are coughing, labored breathing, excessive mucus secretions, and wheezing. Intolerance to regular exercise and weight loss may also occur.  

Asthma in horses is generally treated by limiting exposure to irritating agents. If a horse has hay-associated asthma, that may mean putting the horse out to pasture more and keeping their stalls free of dust and mold. Wood shavings or rubber mats can be used in lieu of a hay bed, and owners can feed horses a pellet-based diet rather than hay. For pasture-associated asthma, horses may need the opposite treatment: less pasture time during spring and fall, and more during winter (when pasture allergens are dormant).

Cats suffering from asthma will start coughing and wheezing, which can sometimes be confused with vomiting. The cat may seem like it is constantly coughing up hairballs, or you may notice that a cat is wheezing or working harder to breathe in general.

If you suspect your cat might be suffering from asthma, count their breaths per minute (i.e., respiratory rate) at home while your cat is sleeping. A cat’s normal respiratory rate should be around 20 breaths per minute. If your cat is breathing faster than that with increased effort or a persistent cough, schedule a trip to the vet. 

The earlier asthma is detected in a cat, the easier it can be managed without side effects. Asthma is primarily an inflammatory disease: the longer such diseases go on untreated, the more difficult they are to get under control. 

Milder cases can often be treated with a nebulizer or aerosol inhaler, where the cat breathes in the medicine. Cats adapt surprisingly well to this treatment! More severe cases can require oral medications, such as corticosteroids (i.e. prednisolone), which can have both short- and long-term side effects. 

Allergies in dogs occur for nearly the same reasons as asthma, but present in a different way: irritations of the skin. And if you have a dog, it’s highly likely they’ve had some kind of allergy: roughly 40% of veterinary visits for small animals are dermatology-related.

Allergic reactions in dogs have similar patterns. Your dog may experience an itch and start licking the itchy spot, which can sometimes lead to moist dermatitis and a skin infection. With the infection the itch increases, and the dog continues to scratch and chew the spot repeatedly. A small itchy spot can turn into a larger red, hairless, and infected area in a matter of hours – frequently referred to as a “hot spot.”

Do some simple at-home observation to determine if your dog needs a trip to the vet. Is the dog keeping itself (and you) up at night scratching or licking? If it was you that was itchy instead of your pet, would you be ok with that amount of itching? 

If you and your pet are losing sleep or the itch seems unreasonable (even to you), it’s time to schedule an evaluation by your veterinarian. Once a correct diagnosis has been made, allergies can often be successfully managed with antihistamines, such as Zyrtec (cetirizine).

When in doubt, contact your vet.

If you see any of these symptoms in your pet, contact your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. Identifying asthma and/or allergies in your pet earlier rather than later can reduce the severity of the symptoms and even increase your pet’s lifespan.