We love our cats and don’t want to see them in any discomfort. So, you will be understandably upset you notice heavy or labored breathing in your kitty. The truth is that there are a number of different possible causes that are worth considering. It could be a physical issue like an airway obstruction or something that is psychological such as an anxiety disorder. Understanding some of the common causes of heavy breathing will put you in the best position to understand what is going on and treat it accordingly. Some situations are inevitably more serious and will need instant action. So, let’s look closer at labored or rapid breathing in cats.
Is My Cat Breathing Heavily?
First, you need to know what regular cat breathing looks like. Well, if you have ever observed your kitty closely, you will see that they breathe more rapidly than humans. Typical resting breathing for a human is between 12 and 16 breaths per minute, while felines can take between 20 and 30 breaths each minute. You can measure your own cat’s respiration rate while they are sleeping. Remember, each breath is defined as inhalation and exhalation. If your cat is taking more than 30 breaths per minute, this is cause for concern.
Cats breathe normally with small movements of their chest, so if they are moving more than this, it could be a sign of labored breathing. Also, cats do not pant in the same way that dogs do, so you shouldn’t see a great deal of excess movement.
In some cats, you will see more labored breathing after they have exercised, or a stressful situation has occurred. So, if your cat has just come in from a playing session outside or they are anxious about riding in the car, these are a couple of possible reasons why their breathing is more labored. At other times, you may notice that your cat is breathing with their mouth wide open, which is often a sign of congestion in the nose or sinuses.
Types of Heavy Breathing in Cats
There are three main types of heavy breathing in cats which are worth discussing in more detail.
- Dyspnea – Labored breathing
Dyspnea is the technical term for labored breathing that can be classified as your cat finding it more difficult to catch their breath. You may notice noisier breathing with your cat sometimes opening their mouth to do so. Their belly and chest may move more than usual, and their nostrils may flare. Cats with this condition may have trouble sleeping and will often extend their head and neck in an effort to take in more oxygen.
There are several possible causes of this condition. The first is disorders of the trachea, which can occur when foreign objects get stuck in the trachea, tumors or an elongated soft panel. Nasal disorders are another common cause, which can occur due to infection, bleeding or tumors. Other possibilities include diseases of the lungs, disorders in the chest wall and the belly.
Whatever the reason, your cat is likely to be in discomfort from their heavy breathing, so it is important that you consult a vet at the earliest possible opportunity.
- Tachypnea – Rapid and shallow breathing
The second type of unusual breathing in cats involves rapid and shallow breaths – otherwise known as tachypnea. Often, your cat will not even notice that anything is wrong. Other symptoms that will often accompany this issue include fatigue, lethargy, and a bluish tint around their gums which signifies poor oxidization.
There is a range of medical conditions that may result in this type of breathing such as hypoglycemia, anemia, pneumonia, and heart failure. It may be a result of a short-term condition like a fever or something more long-term like anemia. At the same time, it may be a result of your cat being in a situation that makes them nervous or stressed.
If your cat’s breathing raises over 40 breaths per minute for a sustained period of time, this is cause for concern and the advice of a vet will be needed. If there is a clear trigger, you can take steps to calm your cat down. For example, if a dog in the room has caused your cat to panic, you can remove them from this situation. Their breathing rate should return to normal, but if it doesn’t, you should take your cat to the vet.
- Panting – Rapid breathing with mouth open
Similar to tachypnea that we discussed above; panting is the same thing but with the mouth open. While cats do not pant nearly as often as dogs, this can happen after they have engaged in a lot of exercise or they have been out in especially warm conditions. Another possible reason for panting is underlying conditions in the heart or lungs.
Panting in cats can be for the simple reason that they are too hot – something that can simply help them to manage their body temperature. Excitement or overexertion are a couple of other reasons for panting, and they may happen because your cat is carrying too much weight. Stress is another common trigger, so you may notice your cat panting when they are on the way to the vet or in the car. And there are another couple of possibilities including heart problem and asthma.
Can Cats Get Asthma?
As we have just mentioned, cats can suffer from asthma just like humans can. With this condition, it causes a constriction of the lungs’ airways, which will in turn make breathing more difficult. As well as the labored breathing that we have already discussed, some of the other common signs that your cat is suffering from asthma include coughing after physical exertion, shallow breaths, increased inactivity, and panic.
If you suspect that your cat has asthma, your vet will be able to confirm whether or not this is the case. They will then work on a treatment plan. This starts with corticosteroid medications, which can be given orally, by inhaler, or by injection. While it is not a cure, it can help to keep the condition under control, which will allow your cat to carry on as normal – as much as possible. Bear in mind that continual use of these medications can lead to side effects such as loss of energy, obesity, muscle weakness, and skin problems.
What to Do if Your Cat is Breathing Heavily
If you can identify the reason why your cat is breathing heavily, it is less likely that you need to worry. For example, it could be that you have just had a physically exhausting playtime session or encountered a stressful situation. In these situations, it is less likely to be a medical emergency and your cat’s breathing should return to normal soon. Some water and air conditioning should help to level out their breathing. However, if your cat is simply lying around not doing much or there are no other discernable reasons for their panting, this is when you need to be more concerned. Also, you should look out for any other side effects of the panting that indicate that all is not well with your kitty. In these situations, it is time to get in contact with your vet to identify is there is something else going on.
Treating and Preventing Heavy Breathing in Cats
Treatment of heavy breathing in cats needs to be done on a case by case basis. If the issue is anxiety related, it may be a case of keeping your cat away from stressful situations. However, if there is an infection causing the issue, it may be that medication is required. Take your advice from your vet. As for prevention of future heavy breathing issues, this requires you to manage your cat’s health properly. Ensure that you have them checked over by the vet on a regular basis, but also get to know your cat better, what represents normal behavior and what is out of the ordinary. Remember, you are in charge of managing your cat’s health and you need to take your cat breathing fast seriously.
Most of the time, you don’t really notice if your cat when they are breathing, so if you do, it is cause for concern unless there is an obvious explanation. For example, if your cat has recently engaged in some vigorous exercise or they have recently experienced a scary or stressful situation, these are the times when it is more likely that you see labored breathing in cats, but it should go back to normal quite quickly. You need to be especially concerned if your cat pants excessively or if your cat is breathing heavily while resting. On these occasions, it is important that you consult with your vet to learn about what to do next and possibly discover an underlying cause that needs treatment. As always with these situations, the sooner you find out what is going on, the sooner you take action.
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- Dyspnea (Difficulty Breathing) – Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
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.