Breathing Problems in Cats: Signs, Causes & Treatment

Cats of all ages and breeds can experience breathing difficulties, which can be life threatening if not treated by a veterinarian in good time. Diseases or issues that affect the functioning of the respiratory system, or the part of the brain that controls respiratory functions, can both cause breathing problems in cats. All breathing problems are considered an emergency and can be divided into three different types according to the symptoms exhibited: 1) Dyspnoea — laboured breathing; 2) Tachypnoea — rapid breathing; and 3) Panting — rapid breathing with mouth open.


Symptoms of Dyspnoea typically include difficulty breathing (inhaling or exhaling); breathing with flared nostrils and mouth open; chest and belly heaving when breathing; noisy breathing; head and neck may be hung low, extended in front of the cat’s body; while the cat’s elbows may stick out away from its body as it inhales or exhales.

Causes of Dyspnoea

There are several possible causes of Dyspnoea in cats, including:

  • Issues with the nose: often caused by small nasal openings, bacterial or viral infections, tumours or nasal bleeding.
  • Issues with the throat or trachea (upper windpipe): may be due to the cat having an elongated palate, a tumour, or a blockage (e.g. a foreign object) lodged in the throat.
  • Issues with the lower windpipe or lungs: may be caused by bacterial and viral infections (pneumonia) in the lungs, heart problems — for example heart failure or an enlarged heart, heartworm infections, tumours, and internal bleeding into the lungs.
  • Issues with the bronchi or bronchioles (small airways) of the lungs: may arise as a result of a bacterial or viral infection, or may be caused by tumours, asthma or allergies.
  • Issues in the chest cavity surrounding the lungs: can be a result of fluid accumulation due to heart failure, blood (haemothorax), pus (pyothorax) or air (pneumothorax) in the chest cavity, or tumours in the chest.
  • Issues in the chest wall: can be due to trauma related injury to the wall of the chest, paralysis of the chest wall due to toxins from snake bites or tick bites.
  • Issues that cause a bloated or enlarged abdomen: can be the result of an enlarged liver, gas in the stomach (bloat) or fluid build-up in the abdomen.

Tachypnoea (Rapid Breathing)

Symptoms of tachypnoea are similar to dyspnoea but the breathing is rapid.

Causes of Tachypnoea

Some common causes of rapid breathing in cats include:

  • Anaemia – red blood cell levels are too low
  • Hypoxia – blood oxygen levels are too low
  • Asthma
  • Fluid accumulating in the lungs due to heart failure
  • Fluid or air accumulating in the chest cavity around the lungs
  • Bleeding into the lungs
  • Tumours


The symptoms of panting are similar to tachypnoea in that the cat breaths more rapidly, however, the breaths are usually shallow, and the cat breathes with the mouth open rather than closed.

Causes of Panting

Common causes of panting include:

  • Pain
  • Reactions to medications
  • Fever – elevated body temperature

Veterinary Detective Work

If you notice your cat is breathing erratically or is struggling to breathe, you need to get it to your vet as soon as possible as it could prove to be life threatening. Be prepared to give your vet a complete history of any health issues you cat may has experienced, as well as any information that could help determine what might have brought this condition on.

Because the list of possible causes of breathing problems in cats is quite extensive, vets are like detectives, investing each case according to the clinical symptoms, while also assessing the cat’s history, and by conducting a physical examination and diagnostic tests. During this process they gather clues along the way that direct them towards a diagnosis and an effective treatment plan.

During the veterinary examination, the vet will observe your cat’s breathing behaviour, as well as listen to your pet’s chest with a stethoscope to determine whether there is any fluid on the lungs or whether you cat has a heart murmur. Your vet is also likely to examine your pet’s gums, as pale coloured gums are a good indication of whether sufficient oxygen is being pumped to various organs in the body or whether your pet is anaemic (has low number of red blood cells). Your vet may give your pet oxygen to assist with breathing before conducting any further tests.

Standard tests to pin-point the cause of breathing difficulties (i.e. to determine whether it is due to a low number of red blood cells or an infection) include analysing a urine sample, conducting a full blood count, as well as biochemical profiling. The results of these tests will also reveal whether your pet’s vital organs are working normally. A blood sample will also be tested to determine the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your pet’s bloodstream, which will help pin-point whether the issue is related to a problem in the lungs or whether the cause of the problem lies elsewhere. A blood sample may also be tested for heartworm.

If your vet suspects the breathing problems may be related to a defect in the lungs or to an enlarged heart that could potentially result in heart failure, s/he may decide to take x-rays or ultrasound scans of your cat’s chest cavity. An internal observation of the abdomen can also be conducted using x-rays or scans. If there is any evidence of a build-up of fluids in the abdomen, lungs or chest, your vet may draw some of the accumulated fluid off to examine more closely.

In the event of a heart problem being diagnosed, your vet may conduct an ECG (electrocardiogram) to measure your pet’s heart activity and determine whether it the heart is operating normally. If the problem lies in the airways or nasal passages, your vet may conduct an endoscopy, which involves inserting a tiny camera, or endoscope, into the air passages to examine these areas more closely.

Treating Breathing Problems in Cats

As oxygen is crucial for sustaining life, it is essential that proper breathing function is restored as soon as possible. This typically requires your cat being admitted into a veterinary hospital so that your pet can be given oxygen to assist with breathing and to ensure sufficient oxygen is getting to all organs in the body. Intravenous or oral medication may also be administered to help improve your pets breathing.

Once your cat is released from hospital it is important to limit his activity and keep him quiet until he recovers. Follow the advice given by your veterinarian and ensure that any prescribed medications are given regularly as directed. Also ensure that you stick to any follow-up check-ups that your vet has scheduled, as your vet may need to conduct follow-up tests to see how your pet is responding to the prescribed treatment.

Depending on the cause and extent of the breathing problem, your pet may be forced to become less active and more of a couch potato house cat than he was before. He may also have to remain on medication long term.

If your cat is experiencing difficulty breathing you should take note of the symptoms and get him to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

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