Breathing difficulties are both a symptom of and cause for distress, both in the respiratory system and throughout your cat’s body.
The respiratory system, composed of the nose, trachea, and lungs, is a life-giving system that affects a cat’s entire body. Therefore, changes in your cat’s breath may stem from issues in almost any part of your cat’s body.
Air enters your cat’s body through their nose and moves into their lungs, transferring oxygen into your cat’s blood and nourishing the organs. As oxygen enters your cat’s body through the nostrils, carbon dioxide moves out and into the atmosphere.
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The movement of breath is controlled by the respiratory center in your cat’s brain and a network of nerves in their chest. When their body is in balance, your cat’s breath is smooth and moderate without halting, wheezing, or excessive stomach movement.
Changes in your cat’s breathing pattern have a world of root causes. They might involve direct trauma or disorder in the respiratory system or could develop as a way to restore homeostasis in the body.
What is the normal respiration rate for a cat?
If you’ve ever tried to synchronize your breath with your cat’s and gotten lightheaded in the attempt, you know that cats naturally breathe more rapidly than do humans. While an adult’s resting respiration rate ranges from 12-16 breaths per minute, a cat might take between 20 and 30 breaths every minute.
To measure your cat’s resting respiration rate, count the number of breaths your cat takes while sleeping. Each breath is defined as one inhalation and one exhalation. Count the breaths for 30 seconds, then multiply by two to get the number of breaths your cat takes each minute.
This video shows you how to calculate your cat’s resting respiration rate. It also shows examples of cats exhibiting both a healthy and an unhealthy respiratory rate.
Some healthy cats take fewer than 20 breaths per minute while resting, but a number higher than 30 is reason for concern.
Heavy breathing isn’t always rapid, however. Heavy breathing manifests in several forms.
The Three Types of Heavy Breathing in Cats
Your cat’s heavy breathing can be broken down into three classifications – dyspnea, tachypnea, and panting. Let’s learn more about each type of heavy breathing.
1. Dyspnea – Labored Breathing
This is when your cat finds it hard to breathe. Cats with dyspnea exhibit the following symptoms:
- Their belly and chest move while breathing.
- Cats with dyspnea sometimes open their mouths while breathing.
- Their breathing may be noisy.
- Their nostrils might flare open with each breath.
- Cats with dyspnea are often restless and unable to sleep.
- Because it’s difficult to breathe, cats with dyspnea might extend their head and neck while breathing.
The following is a video of a cat exhibiting dyspnea:
What causes dyspnea in cats?
- Disorders of the trachea, including foreign objects stuck in the throat, tumors, or an elongated soft palate
- Nasal disorders, including undersized nostrils, infections, tumors, or bleeding.
- Diseases of the lungs and lower windpipe, such as infections, fluid in the lungs, heartworms, or tumors.
- Disorders in the chest wall, including physical trauma and paralysis caused by toxins.
- Congestive heart failure.
- Disorders in the abdomen, such as an enlarged liver, bloating, or fluid buildup.
What should you do if your cat has labored breathing?
Because it is uncomfortable by definition, this can be the most troubling type of heavy breathing in cats. If your cat’s breath appears labored, take your cat to the veterinarian’s office as soon as possible.
2. Tachypnea – Rapid and Shallow Breathing
Note that while dyspnea feels uncomfortable, your cat might be oblivious to their own rapid breathing.
Rapid breathing is often accompanied by the following symptoms:
- A bluish tint to the gums and mucous membranes is a sign of inadequate oxygenation. This is also known as cyanosis.
- Fatigue is a common result of tachypnea. If your cat has trouble breathing, they’ll also be reluctant to exercise or move.
- Unlike panting cats, cats with tachypnea usually don’t breathe through their mouth.
The cat in the following video exhibits tachypnea:
What causes tachypnea in cats?
- Hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the blood)
- Anemia (decreased red blood cell count)
- Space-occupying tumor
- Heart failure
- Fever can cause tachypnea as your cat breathes rapidly in an attempt to cool down their body.
- Cats may breathe rapidly when nervous. You might notice your cat exhibiting tachypnea in stressful situations, like going to the veterinarian or encountering a dog outdoors.
What should you do if your cat is breathing rapidly?
A resting respiration rate of over 30 is considered unusual. If your cat’s sleeping respiration rate exceeds 40 breaths per minute for a prolonged period, a trip to the emergency vet is in order.
If your cat is breathing rapidly while out for a walk on a busy city sidewalk, you’re probably looking at a temporary stress response. Monitor your cat closely, keeping them as cool and calm as possible. If the rapid breathing doesn’t subside after you’ve removed obvious stressors, you may need to take your cat to the vet.
3. Panting – Rapid Breathing with the Mouth Open
Panting is, essentially, tachypnea with the mouth open. Just like dogs, cats pant when they’ve overexerted themselves or have been exposed to excessive heat.
Panting may also point to serious underlying conditions, including heart and lung disease.
The following video shows a cat panting:
What causes panting in cats?
- Cats pant when they’re too hot. Just like dogs, cats use panting as a thermoregulation mechanism. This open-mouthed rapid breathing helps them to manage their body temperature in hot weather.
- Cats may pant when they’re excited or exerting themselves. You may notice your cat panting after playtime or while on a walk. This may happen because your cat is overweight, or it could be a normal response to continued exertion, especially if the weather is warm.
- Stress is a common trigger. Cats often pant when they’re in the car or while at the veterinarian.
- Heart problems, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (abnormally thickened heart muscles), could cause panting.
- In addition to coughing, hacking, and wheezing, some asthmatic cats pant.
What should you do if your cat is panting?
If your cat is panting after playtime, while on a walk, or en route to a vet visit, they’re probably not showing symptoms of a serious condition. Cats breathe rapidly and sometimes pant when overexcited, stressed, or playing in hot weather. This is a normal response and is seldom a medical emergency.
Cool down the workout and cool down your cat. Water and air conditioning are likely the only remedies your cat needs to bring their breathing back to normal.
If your cat is panting after a day of lounging, or if your cat’s heavy breathing is accompanied by other unusual behaviors, their breathing is probably indicative of deeper issues. In this case, it’s time to schedule a vet visit.
What should you do if you notice that your cat is breathing heavily?
In most cases, heavy breathing is a symptom of underlying problems. Particularly if it’s prolonged and accompanied by other symptoms of distress, heavy breathing is a sign that you should take your cat to the veterinarian.
There are certain cases of heavy breathing in which a vet visit isn’t necessary. It’s normal for cats to temporarily breathe heavily during exercise or a stressful event. This type of heavy breathing won’t appear labored or painful and should subside within a few minutes.