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tired cat with troubled breathing

Panting is one of three types of rapid breathing to watch out for in cats.

The essentials

  • Rapid breathing is sometimes typical in cats — Rambunctious play sessions or stress can cause rapid breathing. As your cat calms down, their breathing should return to normal.
  • In some cases, rapid breathing is a warning sign — Without a clear cause, it may indicate a more serious underlying problem.
  • The clinical name is Tachypnea — It means a cat has problems inhaling and exhaling. This symptom accompanies many different kinds of diseases in cats.

Hearing your cuddly companion wheeze, cough, or noisily breathe with difficulty is alarming for all cat owners. Regardless of their health, rapid breathing can occur with cats of any age and breed. If your cat’s breathing becomes consistently irregular, it’s time to seek immediate veterinary care.

👉 Cats naturally breathe more rapidly than humans do. Cats take 15 to 30 breaths per minute while resting or sleeping, while humans, on average, take 12 to 16. Breaths should be quiet and include small chest movements.

Causes of rapid breathing in cats

Rapid breathing can result from an underlying condition or it can be situational. Potential causes can range from allergic reactions to illnesses or injuries. Here are a few common causes of abnormal breathing in cats:

  • Over-exertion during playtime
  • Stress, trauma, shock, or pain
  • Foreign objects blocking the windpipe
  • Emotional distress, fear, nervousness, or anxiety
  • Respiratory conditions, such as allergies, asthma , pneumonia, or an infection
  • Certain chronic heart conditions, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, mitral valve disease, or heart failure
  • Other chronic conditions such as anemia, neurological disorders, or tumors in the chest, lungs, or throat

If your cat is breathing rapidly without a clear and benign cause, go to the vet as soon as possible to find the underlying cause. Numerous health conditions can cause rapid breathing in cats without other outward symptoms.

🚨 If your cat has something lodged in their windpipe, try to get it out and go to the nearest emergency veterinarian immediately.

Three types of rapid breathing in cats

There are three types of irregular breathing in cats, and it’s important for owners to recognize the different types so as to better understand any potential underlying issues.:

  1. Tachypnea. This form of rapid breathing is abnormally shallow. Seeing your cat’s chest rise and fall with each breath may be difficult.
  2. Dyspnea. Difficult or labored breathing, dyspnea might indicate more serious issues like an undiagnosed heart condition or inflammation in the chest or lungs.
  3. Panting. Panting is heavy breathing with the tongue hanging out and may include gasping, gagging, or gulping. Cat panting is sometimes a sign of heat exhaustion, but it should decrease after a few minutes.

Persistent open-mouth breathing is a common sign of serious chest or lung problems, not to be confused with panting.

Bruce D. Armstrong, DVM

How to tell if your cat is breathing fast

👉 Did you know? A kitten’s respiratory rate is the same as an adult cat’s. Not so for dogs — a puppy’s resting breathing rate is faster than an adult dog.

If you think your cat’s breathing is abnormal or inconsistent, it’s time to determine their resting respiration rate. If there is an underlying issue, it’s a good idea to get to the root of the cause as soon as possible and seek appropriate treatment.

How to count your cat’s respiratory rate

Count the number of breaths your cat takes while sleeping. A breath counts as one inhalation and exhalation (when your cat’s chest rises and falls). If you count the number of breaths taken in 30 seconds and multiply by two, you can measure the number of breaths per minute.

Watch this video to learn how to count your cat’s resting respiration rate.

If your cat’s respiratory rate exceeds 30 breaths per minute, it may be time to seek veterinary care. Call your vet for medical advice if your cat is breathing faster than 40 breaths per minute and it doesn’t go away after a short rest.

Clinical signs of rapid breathing in cats

Accurately measuring your cat’s respiratory rate can be difficult because your cat may not be cooperative, or it’s simply challenging to calculate. In these cases, look for these symptoms, which may increase over time or come on suddenly, depending on the underlying reason:

  • Coughing, panting, or wheezing
  • Loss of interest in food or treats
  • Noisy, difficult breathing
  • Lethargy, inactivity, or fatigue
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Heaving chest
  • Blue or purple gums or tongue

🚨Turn to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis of your pet. They will run diagnostic tests and prescribe treatment.

How to treat your cat’s rapid breathing

If a cat is panting after a walk, exercise, or a trip to the vet, it could be a sign of excitement, stress, or exhaustion. These are normal. Let your cat relax in air conditioning or another cool location, and give them plenty of water.

If your cat has difficulty breathing without an apparent cause, it may be time to call the veterinarian.

How vets treat rapid breathing in cats

Treatment of rapid breathing will be customized to each cat based on their health history and the underlying condition causing the problem. You will need to go over your cat’s health history, talk about when symptoms began, and any incidents that could have caused this problem.

Here’s what that visit will usually look like:

  • Your vet will do a general examination – They will observe how your cat breathes and listen to their chest for any evidence of a heart murmur or fluid buildup. Vets will also check the color of your cat’s tongue and gums.
  • They’ll do bloodwork and more extensive tests – Depending on the physical examination, your vet might use blood work, chest X-rays, and other methods to determine the underlying cause.
  • Treatment and medication will be prescribed – Once your vet is confident that they know why your cat is breathing fast, they’ll prescribe medications or antibiotics if needed and develop a supportive care plan to help resolve the issue, whether it’s an infection or a chronic condition.

Severe rapid breathing problems require a stay at the veterinary hospital. Vets can monitor cats while administering oxygen, fluids, or medication. Hospitalized cats will receive oxygen in an oxygen cage.

This DVM speaks about breathing problems and how veterinarians handle cases of respiratory distress at animal hospitals:

Frequently asked questions

What does rapid breathing look like in a cat?

Rapid breathing in our feline friends might involve open-mouthed panting and shallow or heavy, fast breaths. They may also cough, wheeze, or breathe very loudly. The best way to determine if they are breathing rapidly is to count how many breaths your cat takes over 30 seconds, then multiply that by 2. If they take more than 30-40 breaths a minute, they are breathing rapidly. If this doesn’t subside after a break, call your vet.

Why is my cat breathing fast and purring?

Cats don’t just purr when they are happy. Often, it is a self-soothing mechanism for anxiety or pain. If your kitty is breathing rapidly and also purring, it may indicate that they are in distress. Look for injuries, observe your cat for signs of pain, and identify anything that might be a source of anxiety for them.

Why is my kitten breathing fast while sleeping?

Adult cats and kittens breathe faster than humans, so what seems rapid may be normal. If they are breathing more than 30 times per minute while they sleep, though, it may indicate an underlying problem. Contact your vet if your cat is breathing faster than normal.

Why is my cat breathing heavily when traveling?

Unless your cat is used to going on adventures, traveling is likely stressful for them. Fast breathing, dilated pupils, meowing, hiding, and purring are typical reactions to traveling when it’s a new, scary experience. To help with this, try starting your cat off with short trips around the neighborhood in a carrier that they have free access to all the time.

Should I be worried if my cat is breathing fast?

Changes in breath can occur in cats during exercise, playtime, or other strenuous or physical activity. That said, if their breathing doesn’t slow down after rest or there’s no apparent sign of cause, then it could be a sign of an underlying health issue, like stress, pain, fever, respiratory infection, heartworm disease, or heart disease. It’s best to monitor your cat closely for other accompanying symptoms.

Why is my cat taking short, hard breaths?

This combination of breathing could indicate a severe respiratory problem or medical emergency. Contact your veterinarian or an emergency care clinic right away to get a thorough evaluation and appropriate treatment.

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

When watching for labored breathing, look for rapid and/or open-mouth breathing, shallow breaths, nostril-flaring, increased chest effort, wheezing, or crackling sounds. Your cat may also show signs of restlessness or anxiety. In severe cases, your kitty’s gums, lips, or tongue may turn bluish due to lack of oxygen.

Do cats breathe faster than humans?

Yes, cats typically breathe faster than humans. A normal respiratory rate for a resting adult cat can range from 15 to 30 breaths per minute, whereas the average rate for an adult human at rest is about 12 to 20 breaths per minute.