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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 — Rambunctious play sessions or stress can cause rapid breathing. As your cat calms down, their breathing should return to normal.
  • Other times, rapid breathing is a warning sign — Rapid breathing without a clear cause may indicate a more serious underlying problem.
  • Dyspnea is the clinical name — It means a cat ihas 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. Regardless of their health, rapid breathing can occur with cats of any age and breed. If your cat is breathing irregularly, it’s time to seek immediate veterinary care.

Why is your cat breathing fast?

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.

👉 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 is not breathing normally, it’s time to determine their resting respiration rate.

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). Multiply the number of breaths by 2 to get the total number 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.

Signs of rapid breathing in cats

Getting your cat’s respiratory rate can be difficult because your cat may not be cooperative, or it’s simply challenging to calculate. Instead, 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 a diagnosis of the underlying cause. They will run diagnostic tests and prescribe treatment.

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 heart disease or a heart murmur

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 vet immediately!

Three types of rapid breathing in cats

There are three types of irregular breathing in cats:

  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.
  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

What you should do if your cat has breathing problems

If a cat is panting after a walk, exercise, or a vet visit, 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.

Before visiting the emergency veterinary hospital

There are a few steps you can take before taking your cat to an emergency vet appointment.

Clear your cat’s airway — Check for objects stuck in the throat, and if you can safely remove the object, do it. Wipe away any nasal discharge.

Avoid stressing your cat out — Chasing your cat through the house only exacerbates their anxiety and stress. Keep calm, and keep your cat calm as you put them in a carrier.

Ask a vet for advice — Communicate with the emergency vet beforehand and tell them about your cat’s condition. This may impact what they need you to do ahead of time to prepare for your visit.

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 probably 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 initial examination, your vet might use blood work, endoscopy, 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 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:

A quick guide on terminology for your vet visit

One of the reasons that a vet visit is unnerving for owners, aside from the vet bill (a pet budget and insurance can help), is the confusing terminology. Many vets recognize this and will adjust their language to help anxious pet parents. But that isn’t always the case.

Here are some terms and conditions you may hear during your appointment so that you can better understand what your vet is saying:

Respiratory infection

Respiratory tract infections range from common viral infections (particularly with cats that have FVR ) to fungal infections. Viral infections can’t be treated with antibiotics, although they may be given as preventative medication to reduce the chances of a secondary bacterial infection.

Heart failure

Numerous heart diseases fall under the term congestive heart failure. Catching it early by picking up on the first clinical signs of heart failure — like unexplained rapid breathing — and starting treatment can help your cat live a full and normal life.

Pulmonary edema and pleural effusion

When excess fluid accumulates in the lungs, it’s called pulmonary edema . Treatment is the number one priority, but from there, a vet will determine why it happened. It may be as simple as a severe bump on the head that, once healed, will never result in pulmonary edema again. If the underlying cause is a chronic condition, watching for and treating it might be part of your cat’s routine care.

A pleural effusion occurs with the buildup of fluid within the chest cavity. It means that the cat’s lungs are floating in its chest. Pleural effusions don’t spontaneously happen, although the cause can sometimes be treatable and not be an issue again.


Medicines like prednisone are often prescribed to both pets and people to help with allergic reactions. Your vet may prescribe a corticosteroid to help dial down an allergic reaction that’s causing your cat’s rapid breathing.

Recovery from rapid breathing problems

In many cases, cats can fully recover from rapid breathing if they receive immediate veterinary care. For more complex or chronic conditions, treating their breathing may be part of a larger ongoing care routine with additional appointments, specialized care, and long-term medication.

Frequently asked questions

What does rapid breathing look like in a cat?

Rapid breathing in cats 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 cat is breathing rapidly and also purring, it may indicate that they are in distress. Look for injuries and 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. Rapid 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.