Cat Panting or Breathing Heavily (Dyspnea)

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Cats can pant to regulate their body temperature, just like dogs do, although they do so much less frequently. Cats will also sometimes pant if they are undergoing a particularly stressful event, such as a car or subway ride. However, excessive panting, rapid breathing (tachypnea), or difficulty breathing (dyspnea) can also be a sign of a severe condition.

In This Article

What is dyspnea in cats?

Dyspnea in cats is when a cat has significant difficulty inhaling and exhaling — also referred to as respiratory distress. This is sometimes displayed through heavy breathing and panting. Dyspnea is not in itself a disease but rather a clinical sign for many different diseases.

Understanding the possible causes of your cat’s panting can help you distinguish normal panting from dyspnea, which can make a difference to your cat’s prognosis in the event of a veterinary emergency.

Signs & symptoms of dyspnea in cats

Signs and symptoms of dyspnea in cats will depend on the cause and type of panting. Cats may occasionally pant under normal circumstances, but they may also exhibit heavy breathing (dyspnea) or rapid breathing (tachypnea). It’s important to know how to describe these different symptoms:

  • Open-mouthed breathing

  • Deep, heavy breathing

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Rapid breathing

  • Panting while leaning slightly forward

  • Flaring nostrils

  • Exercise intolerance

  • Pale gums

Excessive panting is usually a sign of an underlying condition. You may notice symptoms other than respiratory efforts, such as discomfort, changes in behavior, changes in appearance, increased or decreased urination, and many other possible symptoms relating to the cause of your cat’s dyspnea. As you observe your cat, take note of the type of panting, as this will help your veterinarian determine if your cat’s response to heat or exercise is normal, or if there is a possible veterinary emergency.

Symptoms of heavy breathing in cats may include open-mouthed breathing, flaring nostrils, change in posture, and other concurrent symptoms related to the underlying condition.

What causes dyspnea in cats?

Many different conditions can cause heavy breathing in cats. Some panting is normal, while pain, respiratory ailments, and other diseases are abnormal causes for excessive panting.

Causes for dyspnea include:

  • Normal body temperature regulation

  • Upper airway disease (involving nose, throat, windpipe, and neck region)

  • Lower airway disease (lungs, lower windpipe)

  • Lung disease

  • Cancer

  • Abdominal distension (from enlarged organs, pregnancy, obesity, etc.)

  • Heart disease

  • Pain

  • Anxiety

  • Medications (especially opioids)

  • Brachycephalic airway syndrome

Cats may pant as part of normal body temperature regulation. Cats will also often pant after play, exercise, or on hot days. Obese cats may be more prone to panting than cats at a normal weight. Panting can also be a symptom of upper and lower airway diseases; lung diseases like pneumonia; cancer; and abdominal distention.

Panting is sometimes an indicator of pain, discomfort, or anxiety. Anxious cats may pant, as may cats suffering from an injury or illness that is causing them discomfort. Certain medications, like opioids, may also cause panting. Brachycephalic breeds of cats like Persian, Himalayan, and Burmese cats are prone to brachycephalic airway syndrome, which restricts their breathing.

Diagnosing dyspnea in cats

Diagnosing dyspnea in cats will depend mainly on any other symptoms veterinarians discover upon a physical examination. Veterinarians typically check for abdominal discomfort, anemia, normal reflexes, and elevated body temperature, and they will also listen to the heart and lungs. These findings will aid in the diagnostic process. Bloodwork, heart and abdominal ultrasounds, and chest x-rays (radiographs) may also be needed.

In some cases, veterinarians may take emergency steps to stabilize the cat, like providing oxygen, fluids, and medications. If your veterinarian is concerned about fluid in your cat’s chest cavity (pleural effusion), he or she may also use a needle and syringe to try to remove some of this fluid (a procedure called thoracocentesis). Once the cat is stabilized, the veterinarian will continue assessing the cat for the underlying cause.

Diagnosing dyspnea in cats is based first on a clinical presentation of panting. Veterinarians then perform a series of diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of the symptoms. These tests will vary by case but can include blood work and diagnostic imaging.

Transporting a cat with dyspnea to a veterinarian

When your cat is having difficulty breathing at home, you should get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. When transporting a cat with dyspnea, keep them inside a cat carrier or box so you don’t further compromise their breathing when holding them. Additionally, you should try to minimize stress as much as possible. Placing a breathable blanket over the carrier to block their view can help to lessen anxiety.

Treatment for dyspnea in cats

Treating your cat for dyspnea will depend on its cause. Your veterinarian may provide some treatments to keep your cat comfortable and stable during the diagnostic process, like oxygen, medications, and temperature control. After making a definitive diagnosis, your veterinarian will work with you to come up with a treatment plan.

Possible treatment protocols can range from medications, like antibiotics, bronchodilators, and steroids, to procedures like thoracocentesis or abdominocentesis, which tap body cavities to remove excess fluid. Cats with brachycephalic airway syndrome may need surgery, while cats suffering from cancer may also require surgery in addition to radiation therapy. Your veterinarian may also recommend a consultation with a veterinary specialist, such as a cardiologist or internist, if more advanced or complex care is needed.

Is there a cure for dyspnea in cats?

Some causes of heavy breathing in cats have solutions. Others do not, but may well be manageable with medication. Your veterinarian will discuss your cat’s prognosis and the treatment options available to help you make the best choices for your cat’s quality of life.

Is dyspnea in cats contagious for humans or other pets?

It is unlikely that the underlying cause of your cat’s heavy breathing is contagious to humans or other pets. However, if you plan to breed your cat, talk to your veterinarian about any possible genetic components of your cat’s condition.

Treating heavy breathing in cats will depend on the cause of your cat’s heavy breathing and the severity of the condition. The cost of treating dyspnea varies, but the minimum is paying for the veterinary office visit.

Recovery and management of dyspnea in cats

As with treatment, the recovery process will vary by case depending on the cause. Your cat may need cage rest and exercise restrictions during recovery, or a change in diet if obesity is part of the problem. Cats that need surgery will need post-operative care, which might include follow-up veterinary visits, pain medications, and antibiotics. Cats with heart disease will likely require follow-up visits with your family veterinarian or veterinary cardiologist. Cats with cancer could require surgery and radiation therapy. Depending on the stage of the cancer and your cat’s overall health, your veterinarian may also discuss quality-of-life decisions.

Some conditions require lifelong medications to manage. Be sure to familiarize yourself with any medications your cat is receiving to make sure treatment is as effective as possible, and to minimize complications or side effects.

Recovery and management of dyspnea in cats will vary depending on the underlying cause of your cat’s heavy breathing.

Preventing dyspnea in cats

Some causes of heavy breathing in cats are preventable. Obesity, for example, can be prevented through diet and exercise, and surgical correction can treat and prevent brachycephalic airway syndrome.

During hot weather, make sure your cat has access to fresh water and shade, which will help prevent heat stroke in addition to excessive panting.

Other causes of dyspnea, like cancer, heart and lung disease, and pneumonia are more challenging to prevent. However, keeping your cat on a balanced diet and up-to-date on all vaccinations and wellness visits may help, either by preventing these diseases or catching them early before they progress.

Is there a vaccine for dyspnea in cats?

Unless your cat’s dyspnea is caused by an infectious agent, there is no vaccine for this condition.

Summary of dyspnea in cats

Heavy breathing in cats may be preventable, depending on the cause. However, some of these underlying causes cannot be prevented. Getting your cat veterinary care as quickly as possible is your best chance at preventing further complications.

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