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How to evaluate rapid breathing in cats

Respiratory distress in cats is scary. Here’s what you need to know about the three types of rapid breathing in cats and how to help your pet.

Updated August 31, 2020

Created By

Kaitlyn Arford,
tired cat with troubled breathing

panting is only one of the three types of rapid breathing to watch out for

Hearing your cuddly companion wheeze, cough, or noisily breathe with difficulty is alarming. Though rapid breathing can be the result of activity or excitement, it is often a sign of serious underlying conditions. Cats of any age and breed can experience rapid breathing. If your cat’s breathing irregularly, it’s time to seek immediate veterinary care as this is a potentially life-threatening issue.

What is normal breathing (respiratory rate) in cats?

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.

If you think your cat is not breathing normally, it’s time to determine their resting respiration rate.

Count the number of breaths your cat takes while sleeping. A breath counts both one inhalation and one exhalation (when your cat’s chest rises and falls). Use your smartphone to time 30 seconds as you count. Multiply the number of breaths by two to get the total number of breaths per minute. That’s your cat’s resting respiratory rate.

If your cat’s respiratory rate is higher than 30 breaths per minute, it may be time to seek veterinary care. If your cat is breathing faster than 40 breaths per minute and it doesn’t go away with short rest, call your vet.

Watch this video to learn how to count the resting respiration rate of your cat.

Three types of rapid breathing in cats

Tachypnea

Tachypnea is rapid breathing that is abnormally shallow.

Dyspnea

Dyspnea is difficult or labored breathing.

Panting

Panting is heaving breathing with the tongue hanging out. Though panting is sometimes a sign of heat or exhaustion, it should decrease after a few minutes. Cats may also show open-mouth breathing by gasping, gagging, or gulping.

Signs of rapid breathing in cats

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know if your cat is breathing normally or having breathing difficulties. These symptoms can gradually increase over time or onset suddenly. These signs include:

  • Open mouth breathing (panting)
  • Coughing
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Blue or Purple Gums
  • Noisy Breathing
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Lethargy/Fatigue
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Heaving Chest
  • Breathing Abdominally
  • Blue or Purple Tongue

Causes of Rapid Breathing in Cats

Rapid breathing is often caused by a serious underlying condition. Potential causes can range from allergic reactions to illnesses to injuries. Breathing difficulties can be caused by:

  • Asthma
  • Heartworm
  • Injury or Trauma
  • Pain
  • Allergic reaction
  • Pneumonia
  • Nervousness/Anxiety
  • Upper Respiratory Infection
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Respiratory infection
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Heart failure or heart disease
  • Heart murmur
  • Tumors
  • Fluid build-up
  • Foreign objects blocking windpipe
  • Pleural effusion

What you should do if your cat has breathing problems

If a cat is panting after a walk, exercise, or exciting adventure like a vet visit, it could be a sign of excitement, stress, or exhaustion. This is normal. Let your cat cool down in air conditioning or a cool location and give them plenty of water.

If your cat is having difficulty breathing and there’s no obvious cause, it may be time to call the veterinarian.

What you can do before an emergency veterinary hospital appointment

There are a few steps you can do before taking your cat to an emergency vet appointment. Make sure your cat’s airway is clear. Check for objects stuck in the throat without sticking your fingers in their mouths. Wipe away any nasal discharge.

Avoid stressing your cat by chasing or restraining them. Since anxiety and stress can cause rapid breathing, it’s important to keep your cat calm.

If your cat has difficulty traveling, ask your vet how to safely transport them to the office.

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.

Vets will first observe how the cat breathes and listen to their chest for any evidence of a heart murmur or fluid buildup. They will check the color of your cat’s tongue and gums.

Vets will determine the underlying cause through blood work, endoscopy, and other methods. Vets may use x-rays or ultrasounds to examine the heart and lungs to identify any tumors, foreign objects, or fluid build ups. If it’s a suspected heart issue, vets may run an ECG (electrocardiogram).

Cats may get medication or antibiotics, either by mouth or intravenously. If the cause is due to an infection or pneumonia, vets may prescribe antibiotics to fight off the infection. If the cause is allergies, vets may prescribe antihistamines.

Severe rapid breathing problems will require a stay at the veterinary hospital. Vets can constantly monitor cats while they administer oxygen, fluids, or medication. Vets will sometimes offer oxygen via a face mask in an emergency. 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:

Recovery from rapid breathing problems

In many cases, cats can make a full recovery from rapid breathing as long as immediate veterinary care is taken. Some conditions may require ongoing care. Future veterinary appointments, specialized care, or medication may be necessary.