Kitten breathing fast but otherwise normal

Kitten breathing fast but otherwise normal

Panting may be less common in cats than in dogs, but that doesn't mean cats never pant. However, heavy breathing in cats can sometimes be a symptom of a health problem, so it's important to understand when a cat's heavy breathing is normal and when it's worth a visit to your Johns Creek veterinary clinic. 

Heavy Breathing & Panting In Cats

While sometimes panting may be seen in some healthy cats, more often than not heavy breathing in cats is more likely to indicate an underlying health problem in need of prompt veterinary care. If you notice that your feline friend is panting or breathing heavily, take a moment to assess the situation based on the following criteria.

Normal Panting in Cats

On rare occasions, panting can be normal behavior for cats. If your cat is struggling to catch their breath, think about what your cat was doing just before you noticed the heavy breathing.

Cats may begin to pant when they are overheated or anxious or if they've just done strenuous exercise (like the zoomies!). If your cat is panting for any of these reasons, it should resolve itself once the cat has had an opportunity to calm down, cool down or rest.

That said, it's important for pet parents to note that this sort of panting is much rarer in cats than it is in dogs. So if you aren't sure why your cat is panting, it’s worth a trip to the vet.

Dyspnea - Abnormal Breathing in Cats

If your cat isn't hot, stressed or tired from exercise, but their breathing is labored, it could be a sign of a medical issue. If you think that your pet may be suffering from any of the 5 conditions below, a trip to the emergency veterinary hospital may be needed.

1. Respiratory Infections

  • A respiratory infection can make it difficult for your cat to breathe normally, which can result in heavy breathing or panting. In cats, these infections will often start out as viral infections then develop into secondary bacterial infections. Antibiotics may be necessary to treat the infection so that your cat can breathe more easily.

2. Asthma

  • Panting, wheezing, coughing and increased respiratory rate are all common symptoms of asthma in cats. While the treatment for asthma in cats may not be curative, you can help your cat successfully manage their asthma with corticosteroids or bronchodilators.

3. Heartworm

  • In some cats, heavy breathing could be a sign of heartworm. Treatment for heartworm includes supportive care with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. In more serious cases of heartworm, your cat may also require oxygen therapy. Because heartworm disease can be fatal, it is important to keep your cat on a monthly heartworm preventive medication.

4. Hydrothorax & Congestive Heart Failure

  • Hydrothorax is a serious health concern in cats. It's characterized by a build-up of fluid in and around the lungs. Symptoms of hydrothorax can include rapid breathing, panting and coughing. Treatment for this condition includes draining the fluid as well as medications to dilate blood vessels, get rid of excess fluid and make heart contractions stronger.

5. Other Conditions That Can Lead to Panting in Cats

  • Anemia
  • Neurologic disorders
  • trauma
  • Abdominal enlargement and pain

If your cat is panting or showing other symptoms of breathing difficulties, it's a good idea to get them checked out. Get in touch with Johns Creek Veterinary Clinic to book an appointment for your furry friend.

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Rapid breathing (tachypnea) is not a disease in itself, but can be a symptom of a potentially serious or even life-threatening condition. Note that it's normal, or at least not unexpected, for a cat to breath rapidly if it's anxious, overheated, or playing enthusiastically. But it's abnormal if a cat is breathing rapidly while at rest, particularly if it also appears lethargic or ill. If your cat is experiencing tachypnea, it can be a sign of a variety of issues from stress to heart disease and indicates that your pet is not getting enough oxygen through its system.

Cats are generally subtle in showing their caregivers signs of illness, so you must be especially vigilant to notice symptoms like rapid breathing. Being observant may help you to determine the cause of the rapid breathing or the situations in which it occurs. Because tachypnea can be a sign of serious illness, it's important to seek veterinary attention if your cat continues to breathe rapidly.

To know if a cat is breathing rapidly, you first need to know a healthy respiratory rate (breathing) for a cat, which is 20 to 30 breaths per minute when resting calmly or sleeping. Breaths should create small movements of the chest; if your cat’s sides are moving a large amount, this can indicate labored breathing. Be concerned if your cat’s breathing is abnormal. That means it’s unusually slow, fast, noisy (has a high, harsh, or whistling sound), or the cat is having difficulty breathing.

To measure your cat's resting respiration rate, count the number of breaths your cat takes while sleeping. One breath consists of your cat’s chest rising (inhaling) and falling (exhaling). Use your phone or watch to time 30 seconds and count how many breaths occur during that 30 second period. Next, multiply the number of breaths you counted by two to get the number of breaths in a minute. If your cat is breathing more than 30 times per minute while at rest, it is experiencing tachypnea.

Because tachypnea is a sign of an underlying health problem, there are often a number of other symptoms that can occur along with the rapid breathing. Any breathing difficulty is a medical emergency and requires urgent veterinary attention. You might observe:

  • Rapid rising and falling of the stomach or chest
  • Open mouth breathing (panting)
  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body
  • Noisy breathing
  • Lethargy/fatigue
  • Blue color to the gums
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Exercise intolerance/reluctance to move

The most obvious sign of tachypnea in cats is rapid rising and falling of the stomach and chest, indicating that the cat is breathing faster than normal. Sometimes it will appear that your cat's sides are sucking in and out with each breath. You might see your cat try to ease its breathing by crouching down with elbows held out slightly from its body and its head stretched forward. A cat that is really struggling to breath will often pant through an open mouth, and might appear anxious or even panicky.

Depending on the cause of the rapid breathing, you might hear abnormal respiratory sounds, such as whistling, wheezing, or groans with each breath. Your cat might even cough or gag. If the breathing difficulty is quite severe, your cat's gums might appear bluish, which indicates a lack of oxygen.

Other symptoms that can accompany breathing difficulties include a loss of interest in play or other activities, sleeping more than usual, loss of appetite, lethargy or depression, and irritability.

Rapid breathing in cats is a symptom of a variety of illnesses and injuries and should be evaluated by your veterinarian right away. While many causes of tachypnea are mild and easily treated, others are life-threatening without rapid treatment.

Some possible causes include:

  • Allergies: Just like humans, cats can be allergic to foods or airborne particles such as pollen.
  • Anemia: There are many causes of anemia, which is a condition where there are too few red blood cells. Since red blood cells carry oxygen, anemia can lead to rapid breathing as a way to compensate for the lowered blood oxygen levels.
  • Asthma: This breathing disorder causes the cat's airways to constrict, making breathing difficult.
  • Emotional distress: If your cat is frightened, stressed, or angry, it will breathe more rapidly than normal. In this case, however, the respiratory rate should return to normal once the cat calms down.
  • Exertion: A cat that is playing hard, exercising, or otherwise exerting itself will breathe more rapidly than normal. However, the respiratory rate should return to normal once the cat rests.
  • Heart Disease: Congestive heart failure, along with other heart diseases, can cause rapid breathing due to the heart's reduced ability to move oxygenated blood throughout the cat's body.
  • Heat: If your cat is overheated, it will breathe more rapidly than normal in an attempt to cool down.
  • Pain: Cats in pain often breathe rapidly in response to stress.
  • Pleural effusion (abnormal accumulation of fluid within the chest cavity): Fluid in the chest cavity restricts the ability of the heart and lungs to work normally, leading to an increased respiratory rate and other signs of respiratory distress.
  • Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid) In this condition, the lungs are unable to effectively oxygenate the cat's blood, causing an increased rate of breathing to compensate.
  • Foreign objects lodged in windpipe or other airway obstruction: If your cat swallows a toy, chunk of food, or another foreign object that blocks the airways, it will struggle to breathe in and out.
  • Respiratory infections: Any infection in the respiratory system, such as pneumonia, can increase the cat's respiratory rate.
  • Trauma, exposure to toxins, or injury: Trauma can lead to rapid breathing in response to the shock, or due to damage to the cat's respiratory system.
  • Tumors in the chest or throat: If a tumor is large enough to impede the normal movements of the lungs and heart, or takes up space in the cat's chest, one symptom might be rapid breathing.

If your cat is breathing rapidly, consider any obvious factors that may be causing it and remove them from your cat's environment. Some factors include emotional distress and heat. If your cat is panting due to heat, for example, get them out of the heat as soon as possible and make sure to have water available to them. If your cat's breathing quickly returns to normal, then you know that the problem was a situational response and not an underlying health issue. However, if rapid breathing continues despite removing the possible cause, seek veterinary attention.

The veterinarian will perform an examination observing how your cat breathes, listening to their chest for evidence or abnormalities such as a heart murmur or fluid in the lungs. They'll also check the color of your cat's gums to indicate whether oxygen is being delivered to the organs effectively, and do a complete examination of the whole body.

Your veterinarian will most likely perform blood tests to check for underlying conditions and take X-rays and/or ultrasound to examine the lungs and heart.

Rapid breathing is a symptom of an underlying medical issue, and treatment varies depending on the severity of illness and diagnosis. If your pet is struggling to breathe, the veterinarian or veterinary technician may take it to the treatment area immediately upon arrival to stabilize your cat. This will include providing oxygen through a mask and placing an IV catheter to administer emergency drugs and fluids. If a foreign object is lodged in the cat's airways, the veterinarian will remove it manually if possible, or through an emergency surgery if the object cannot be easily reached.

In cases of pleural effusion, a thoracentesis will be performed to remove fluid from the chest, which will improve breathing and provide the veterinarian with a fluid sample for analysis. If heart disease is a concern, once your cat is stabilized, x-rays and an echocardiogram of the heart will be performed to evaluate the size and function of the heart.

Antibiotics, allergy medications, and anti-inflammatories will be prescribed in cases of infectious or inflammatory illnesses, or if the veterinarian suspects allergies are causing the problem.

If your cat is in respiratory distress, it is best to be as calm as possible. If traveling is stressful for your cat, your veterinarian will be able to best advise you on how to transport your cat.

Remember that if you think your cat is exhibiting rapid breathing, in most cases, this is an emergency. It is always safest to have your pet evaluated at the first sign of rapid breathing. If your cat exhibits rapid breathing that resolves after a few minutes, keep a journal of details including how long it lasted, what was happening before and after, and the date to share with your veterinarian. This will help your veterinarian narrow down potential causes and recognize possible triggers.

If your cat is breathing rapidly due to infection, allergies, or another simple health issue, then the problem should resolve with treatment. However, if the tachypnea is caused by heart disease, trauma, poisoning, or a tumor, the prognosis is far more guarded.

Because so many things can cause rapid breathing in cats, you cannot always prevent this symptom. But you can help ward off health issues by getting your cat regular veterinary checkups, feeding a balanced, healthy diet, making sure your cat is a healthy weight, and avoiding situations that might stress, frighten, or overheat your cat.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.