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The larynx has many important functions for your cat’s breathing and eating. The larynx serves as a filter between the lungs and the mouth, allows your cat to vocalize (“meow”), and also prevents aspiration pneumonia when your cat regurgitates. Aspiration pneumonia is a serious condition in which food or other foreign particles can make their way into the lungs, typically when breath is taken during or immediately after vomiting. The larynx’s location and muscular nature typically prevents this from happening when it is functioning normally.
Laryngeal disease in cats is a broad, catch-all term that refers to any condition that affects the normal function and airflow through the larynx, or voice box, of your cat.
There are a number of underlying conditions that could potentially cause laryngeal disease in cats, which creates some variety in the symptoms the condition may produce. There are, however, commonalities in symptoms in all cats with laryngeal disease. These may include:
Laryngeal disease is seen more often in dogs than in cats, but it does also occur in our feline pets. The condition can be acquired, meaning that it comes on as your pet ages, or a hereditary or congenital disease in young cats, although this is less common. Causes of laryngeal disease in cats include:
Cancer as Cause of Laryngeal Disease
Cancer is the most common cause of laryngeal disease and laryngeal paralysis in cats. The main types of cancer that cause the condition are squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma, and thyroid cancer given the thyroid’s close proximity to the larynx. Other types of cancer can also metastasize, or spread, to the larynx. In the case of cancer, inflammation, and tumors, the larynx growth or inflammation causes a narrowing of the air passages, thus creating the dysfunction.
Diagnosis of laryngeal disease in your cat will begin with a thorough physical exam. You vet will need to know a timeline for the onset of symptoms. This will be especially important in the case of cancer, tumors or other growths, as this will allow the veterinarian to determine how aggressive the condition is. If cancer is suspected, your vet will need to conduct an oral exam. X-rays or other imaging such as ultrasounds may need to be performed, both of which will require your cat to be sedated.
The most thorough and definitive test to identify the cause of the laryngeal disease in your cat is called a laryngoscopy, which allows your veterinarian to thoroughly examine all areas of the larynx. Your cat will need to be heavily sedated for this procedure. During the laryngoscopy, your vet will use special tools to examine your cat’s larynx and inspect for any growths or tumors. If these are identified, the veterinarian can take a small biopsy at that time.
It is important to note that invasive procedures in the larynx with a cat suffering from laryngeal disease can have severe side effects. In a cat with an already inflamed or irritated larynx, additional damage, stimulation, or annoyance of the site can cause the air passages to further shrink, creating a potentially life-threatening situation. Your veterinarian will thoroughly monitor your cat after any such procedures to watch for signs of difficulty breathing or respiratory arrest. Depending on the severity, your vet may choose to treat with an anti-inflammatory medication at this time to mitigate the side effects.
Treatment of laryngeal disease in your cat will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. In the case of cancer or tumor, your vet may choose chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery to excise any tumor. Your vet may also use some combination of these procedures to maximize the potential for complete recovery. Your veterinarian will also conduct follow-up imaging to confirm the cancer has not spread to other parts or your cat’s body.
In the case of infection or inflammation, antibiotic medications may be prescribed. In severe cases, your cat may be hospitalized for a short period of time until your veterinarian is confident it is stable enough to return home without risk of respiratory distress occurring.
In the case of injury or paralysis, the treatment will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Many cats can survive well with partial laryngeal paralysis and may need modified diets or exercise schedules. If the condition in your cat is permanent, the vet may also advise to not expose your pet to extensive exercise or extreme heat since this increases the demand for oxygen or can cause overheating if your cat can’t adequately vent heat through airflow.
Recovery will be completely dependent on the underlying cause of the laryngeal disease in your cat. With cancerous causes, prognosis is guarded if the entire mass is able to be removed. Your cat will need regular checkups to confirm successful surgery and that the cancer has not returned.
In the case of partial paralysis or infection, following your veterinarian’s prescribed course of treatment or medication schedule will allow your cat to have a happy, long life, even if they are still partially affected.
Unfortunately, in some animals the underlying condition of the laryngeal disease will be life-threatening and incurable. In this case, your veterinarian will discuss your many palliative care options to make your cat comfortable and happy in the time you have together.
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