While panting in dogs is perfectly normal, a heavy breathing cat is much less common. But that doesn’t mean your feline will never pant. However, should your feline start to breathe heavily, it is important to know what is normal and when it could be due to something more serious.
We explore the reasons why your kit may be panting and when you should seek veterinarian advice.
What is Normal Breathing in a Cat?
If you have ever observed the rise and fall of your cat’s chest when they are resting, you will most likely have noticed that they naturally breathe quite rapidly compared to your own breath. Whereas an adult human’s resting respiration rate is normally between 12 and 16 breaths per minute, a cat will take between 20 and 30 inhalation/exhalations.
Your cat’s resting respiration rate should be smooth and consistent with small rises and falls as they inhale and exhale. Their breathing should also be without any wheezing, interruptions, or exaggerated stomach or chest movements.
While some healthy cats may take fewer than 20 resting breaths per minute, any higher than 30 breaths can be considered heavy breathing. And this will most likely be noticeable and even present as physical panting, although cats don’t pant in the way dogs do, but with short, small rapid breathing movements.
Types of Heavy Breathing in Cats
In some cases, an otherwise perfectly healthy cat breathing heavily can be considered normal, for example, after strenuous exercise or when they have encountered a stressful situation. But this labored breathing should quickly pass once your cat has calmed down or has been removed from their stressor.
However, if the heavy breathing continues or there is no obvious stressor and they continue panting, especially if their mouth is hanging open or they appear to have some difficulty breathing, then there is most likely to be another underlying cause.
Heavy breathing in cats can be considered one of three main types – dyspnea, tachypnea, and panting – and each have their specific symptoms and typical causes.
Dyspnea presents itself as labored breathing, where your kit appears to be struggling to breathe or catch their breath. If your cat is showing signs of dyspnea and there are no obvious causes or environmental stresses for their abnormal breathing, then it could be that there is an underlying medical issue that may need prompt veterinary care.
Signs of Dyspnea Include:
- Both your cat’s chest and belly move when breathing
- Your kit needs to open its mouth to breathe, and even extend its head and neck
- You may notice that their nostrils flare open as they breathe
- Their breathing is noisy or raspy
- They are restless or unable to sleep
Another common form of heavy breathing in cats is known as tachypnea, which is the name for rapid and shallow breathing without your cat dropping their mouth open. Unlike dyspnea, which can feel uncomfortable and even distressing for your cat, tachypnea can go unnoticed by your pet. If you notice this type of rapid breathing in your cat, look out for the following symptoms so you can decide what to do next:
- A bluish tint to their gums (also known as cyanosis) indicate a lack of oxygen
- Fatigue or lethargy and an unwillingness to move or exercise
An underlying or undetected medical issue could be behind your cat’s tachypnea, although it can also be caused by stress or anxiety. If there is a clear environmental trigger for their raised breathing levels, remove them from the stressor and they should calm their breathing down. However, if their breathing rate is high – 35-40 breaths per minute – for a sustained period and shows no sign of calming down, seek veterinary care for appropriate advice and treatment.
Panting in cats presents as rapid breathing that’s like tachypnea but with their mouth open. Just like dogs, cats can pant when they are overheating, are stressed, or have over-exerted themselves, although their panting will be less pronounced than a canine. In these circumstances, your cat is using heavy breathing to help manage their body temperature and to calm themselves down.
However, panting can also be caused by a more serious health issue, such as heart or lung disease and even feline asthma. So, again, if the panting doesn’t subside once your cat has calmed or cooled down, or there is no physical cause, then it is a health concern that requires prompt veterinary care.
Why Your Cat May Be Breathing Heavily
If your feline friend is breathing fast, or their breathing is labored and you have ruled out any immediate reasons or stressors, then there is the likelihood that their abnormal breathing has an underlying cause. The main medical reasons for breathing difficulties include:
A Foreign Object
One of the more obvious causes of breathing distress in your cat is an object lodged in their trachea (windpipe) which reduces the airflow into their lungs. Emergency care may be needed to safely remove the obstruction.
Feline asthma can be the cause of panting in cats, especially if it is accompanied by coughing and wheezing. The good news is that asthma panting can be managed with bronchodilators or corticosteroids so a trip to the veterinary hospital for a full diagnosis is a good idea.
Our pets are prone to bugs and viral infections just as we are, and so temporary respiratory infections could be impacting your kit’s ability to breathe normally. If you suspect an infection, including a secondary bacterial infection, carefully monitor your pet, and take them to the vet if there are no signs of improvement as they may require antibiotics.
Caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofilaria immitis, heartworm is a serious disease that can lead to severe lung disease, heart failure, and death in both cats and dogs. One of the symptoms of heartworm disease is heavy breathing as your cat’s lungs become seriously inflamed.
If you suspect this disease, a veterinarian can prescribe treatment, which for heartworm includes supportive care using corticosteroids to bring down the lung inflammation and reduce your cat’s labored breathing. Oxygen therapy can also be used in a medical emergency. Heartworm disease is a serious condition, so it is also important to ensure your feline friend has their monthly heartworm preventive medication.
Heart Failure and Hydrothorax
Hydrothorax in cats is a serious health concern that is typically caused by congestive heart failure and causes distressing breathing difficulties. This results in an accumulation of excess fluid around the lungs putting them under pressure, causing your cat to pant, and take deep and rapid breaths to get the oxygen they need. Without emergency care to drain the excess fluid and administer drugs to dilate blood vessels, congestive heart failure hydrothorax is a serious health issue that can be fatal.
Other Causes of Heavy Breathing in Cats
As well as the above more serious conditions, there are numerous other health conditions that could lead to your cat breathing heavily. These include some neurologic disorders, abdominal enlargement, tumors, and physical trauma as well as localized or widespread pain.
If you are in any doubt as to the cause of your cat’s breathing issues or trouble breathing, always take them to a veterinary hospital to get the correct advice.
Treating Heavy Breathing in Cats
As we have seen, in certain circumstances, it can be normal for your cat to pant or breathe heavily, for example, if they are stressed, too hot, or have done some strenuous exercise. Cats can also demonstrate fast breathing if they are overweight and even over-excited. All of these are perfectly normal reactions. However, there are rare occasions when that panting is a sign of something more serious.
Prevention is always a good tactic to tackle heavy breathing, so ensure your cat has shade, reduce any potentially stressful situations or environments, and help them to maintain a healthy weight.
If your cat does show signs of breathing issues, then after ruling out the reasons above, monitor them carefully. If their breathing issues don’t subside within a reasonable amount of time or their breathing rate goes above 40 breathes per minute, seek professional veterinary intervention, especially if there are accompanying symptoms such as lethargy or signs of physical distress.
Getting a prompt and accurate diagnosis of the cause of your cat’s breathing problems means that they can get the most appropriate treatment and aftercare. And ultimately that means that both you and your feline friend can breathe easy.
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- Dyspnea (Difficulty Breathing), Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Asthma in Cats, International Cat Care
- Difficulty Breathing (dyspnea), Tufts University
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.