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Heavy Breathing in Cats: What It Is and What to Do About It?

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Warning: This article, “Heavy breathing in cats: What it is and what to do about it?”, is purely informative. On CatLicking we do not have the skills to prescribe veterinary treatments or make any diagnosis. We invite you to bring your animal to the veterinarian if it presents the symptoms of a fever or a disease.

Unlike dogs, who breathe hard and fast when stressed or hot, felines do not need to breathe heavily and if they do, it is usually a sign of a health problem.

Heavy breathing should always be checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Breathing difficulties are both a symptom and a cause of distress, both in the respiratory system and throughout your cat’s body.

I will try to tell you more about it so that you can better understand the situation!

The Cat’s Respiratory System

The cat’s respiratory system is quite delicate and therefore requires great vigilance.

A minor respiratory symptom does not always correspond to a benign pathology.

For this reason, one should never underestimate everything that concerns it, even a banal sneeze.

The cat’s respiratory system is composed of the nasal fossae with the nostrils whose role is to clean the inhaled air of its impurities and to convey it towards the pharynx.

The air then passes through the larynx where the vocal cords, vibrating, allow the cat to meow.

The path of the air continues in the trachea, a duct about 3 inches long that divides into two large bronchi that become thinner (bronchioles) and branch out into the pulmonary alveoli (small cavities in the lungs for gas exchange between incoming oxygen and outgoing carbon dioxide).

The lungs – spongy, elastic and covered with a membrane called the pleura – coexist with the heart in the rib cage.

The frequency of the cat’s respiratory function at rest is 20 to 40 cycles/minute, and each cycle mobilizes about 30 ml of air.

Its role is to :

  • Regulate the quantity of oxygen contained in the inspired air and absorbed by arterial blood
  • Remove carbon dioxide by exhaling the air
  • Finally, since cats do not sweat, a unique and important role is to eliminate excess heat by increasing frequency (thermal polypnoea).
Heavy Breathing in Cats - Cat Respiratory System

Cat Respiratory System – Source:

What Is a Cat’s Normal Breathing Rhythm?

Just like us humans, cats have the ability to increase their breathing rate if necessary, for example if they exercise.

But once they are at rest or asleep, their body should return to a normal rhythm.

A cat’s normal breathing rate should be less than 30 breaths per minute, and anything over 40 breaths should be examined by an emergency veterinarian.

How to measure your cat’s breathing rate:

  • Make sure your cat is at rest, if possible sleeping for more than 30 minutes.
  • Count the number of breaths for 30 seconds (one breath is one in and one out).
  • Multiply the result by 2 and you will have the breathing rate of your tomcat.
  • If the result is less than 30, don’t worry. If it is above 40, consult your veterinarian. Between 30 and 40, repeat the measurement several times during the day, and if the value remains high, call your veterinarian for more advice.

For your information, the breathing rate of a human at rest is less than 20.

The breathing rhythm is the same for a male or female cat. If your cat is expecting a litter, do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian.

The 3 Types of Heavy Breathing in Cats

Your cat’s heavy breathing can be classified into 3 categories: dyspnea, tachypnea and panting.

Now let’s dive into each type of heavy breathing.

1. Dyspnea: Heavy and Labored Breathing

In addition to the obvious difficulty in breathing in and out, cats with dyspnea frequently show a variety of associated clinical signs:

  • Belly and chest movement while breathing.
  • Breathing rhythm may be noticeably rapid
  • Potentially noisy breathing, sometimes with open mouth
  • Head down, body stretched forward
    symptoms of headaches, near vomiting

The risk factors vary depending on the risk factors associated with the condition that causes respiratory distress.

Laboured breathing due to heart failure, for example, will tend to affect older cats, since they are more susceptible to this disease.

Asthma-induced shortness of breath, on the other hand, can affect cats of all ages, but it can occur more frequently in hot weather, and when there is a lot of pollen in the air.

Obesity itself is not a predisposing factor, although respiratory problems may intensify more rapidly in overweight cats.

The main causes of heavy breathing are as follows:

  • Tracheal disorders, including foreign bodies stuck in the throat, tumors or an elongated soft palate
  • Nasal disorders, including nostrils that are too small, infections, tumors or bleeding.
  • Diseases of the lungs and lower trachea, such as infections, fluid in the lungs, heart worms or tumours.
  • Chest wall disorders, including physical trauma and paralysis caused by toxins.
  • Congestive heart failure.
  • Disorders of the abdomen, such as enlarged liver, bloating or fluid accumulation.

What Should You Do If your Cat Is Breathing Heavily?

There are too many things that can cause respiratory distress.

Only a veterinarian is equipped to do a proper examination and to perform basic tests to determine the source of the dyspnea and the appropriate treatment.

It is therefore important to take your cat to your veterinarian.

2. Tachypnea: Rapid and Shallow Breathing

Tachypnea, also called polypnea, is an increase in breathing rate.

Tachypnea, unlike dyspnea (a feeling of distress associated with labored breathing), is not necessarily a sign of distress.

Clinical signs of tachypnea :

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • Rapid breathing during sleep

Possible causes of tachyapnea :

  • Hypoxia (low level of oxygen in the blood)
  • Anemia (decreased red blood cell count)
  • Heart Failure
  • Fever: Your cat is breathing rapidly in an attempt to cool his body.
  • Nervousness – Stress

What Should You Do If your Cat Is Breathing Too Fast?

If his heart rate remains above 30 during the day, contact your veterinarian urgently.

If you think your cat is under stress, we advise you to use a little pheromone (spray or diffuser). You will see, it is very effective.

3. Panting: Rapid Breathing with Open Mouth

Panting is, essentially, a tachypnea with the mouth open.

Panting can also indicate serious underlying conditions, including heart and lung disease.

It is important to note that rapid breathing with an open mouth may be normal if it does not last throughout the day and especially if it is caused by :

  • Playing, running, or strong excitement such as after hunting
  • Exposure to extreme heat
  • High stress

What Should You Do If your Cat Is Breathing Too Fast Through his Mouth?

If your cat’s heart rate remains above 30 during the day, contact your veterinarian urgently. Also contact your veterinarian if the problem persists during the day.

If you think your cat is under stress, we advise you to use a little pheromone (spray or diffuser).

Other Causes of Heavy Breathing in Cats

Asthma in Cats

Even cats can have asthma! Inflammation of the bronchial tubes is revealed by a sudden chronic cough that can lead to respiratory distress.

An X-ray of the lung can identify typical changes related to asthma.

Cortisone can usually reduce the body’s inflammatory response, while inhalation or specialized medications open the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier.

Dental Problems in Cats

Dental problems can also cause breathing difficulties. Symptoms range from coughing, sneezing and choking.

The veterinarian is usually able to make an accurate diagnosis here.

Parasites in Cats

Parasites such as lungworms are mainly found in outdoor cats that eat snails. They can cause symptoms of airway inflammation, including a chronic cough.

Sometimes, however, the infection is present but without symptoms. The veterinarian can detect lungworms by taking an x-ray or a stool sample.

Treatment consists of deworming, and it is often necessary to repeat the procedure several times.

Unfortunately, the respiratory problems that accompany the presence of worms rarely disappear with them. Often, the damaged respiratory system must be restored until the cat is fully recovered.

Allergies in Cats

Allergies are not uncommon in cats. Respiratory problems that occur especially in certain seasons or situations may indicate a cat allergy.

Just like humans, cats can be allergic to pollen, but also to dust mites, fungus spores and certain foods.

Treatment differs depending on the symptoms and their cause.

Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Cats

If a blade of grass or other foreign body enters the cat’s trachea or larynx, it can cause irritation that manifests itself by coughing, sneezing or choking.

Most foreign bodies are found in the nasopharynx, but they can migrate into the nasal cavity and cause serious damage.

It is therefore essential to take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Polyps in Cats

Polyps are benign tumors, abnormal growths of tissue, developing on the mucous membrane, mainly in young cats.

The growths develop in the pharynx or at the entrance to the ear canal.

Typical symptoms are a runny muzzle and snoring.

The veterinarian can easily remove polyps under anesthesia.

As you can see, respiratory problems in cats can have many different causes. See your veterinarian promptly when symptoms appear. He will be able to make a clear diagnosis and treat your cat in time.

What to Do If your Cat Is Breathing Heavily?

In most cases, heavy or rapid breathing is a symptom of underlying problems.

Especially if it is prolonged and accompanied by other symptoms of distress, heavy breathing is a sign that you should take your cat to the vet.

In some cases, it is not necessary to go to the veterinarian. It is normal for cats to breathe temporarily and heavily during stressful exercises or events.

This type of heavy breathing does not seem to be painful or distressing and should disappear within minutes.

Cats rarely cough. In general, a cough is a sign of lung or heart disease.

Nevertheless, a transient dry cough is often not serious.

It is of concern when it becomes severe and persistent. In this case, a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Depending on the results of the tests, the veterinarian will prescribe a targeted treatment. In the presence of dyspnea, i.e. if your cat has difficulty breathing, take him to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

The veterinarian will be able to ask you specific questions about the crisis to find out if it appeared suddenly or gradually, while the cat was active or at rest, if it was the victim of an accident or caught in a fight, etc.

The veterinarian will then prescribe targeted treatment.

A chest X-ray, possibly performed under anesthesia, may be considered.

Depending on the severity of the respiratory illness, surgery or palliative care may be considered.

Can my Cat Be Hospitalized Because of Acute Dyspnea?

It is rare that a cat with a dyspnea attack is not hospitalized: in fact, even if it is a recurrence and the diagnosis has already been established, the body does not always respond in the same way to treatment.

It is therefore necessary for the cat to be on site in order to be put under oxygen if necessary.

In addition, in case of pleural effusion (liquid in the pleura) or pneumothorax (air in the pleura), your veterinarian will calm your cat to restore the vacuum in its pleura and allow your cat to regain its normal respiratory capacity.

Cat Photo by Annette Meyer from Pixabay

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