By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 November 2011)
There are three types of abnormal breathing in cats: Slow and laboured, rapid, and noisy. Each suggests a different set of possible problems.
Slow, Laboured Breathing in Cats
Slow, laboured breathing usually indicates a very serious medical problem. Blood clots in the brain, encephalitis, and poisoning can all cause slow respiration.
If a cat breaths very slowly and the breathing seems to require a lot of effort (laboured breathing), seek emergency veterinary care immediately.
Rapid Breathing, Panting, or Heavy Breathing in Cats
Rib fractures, pleurisy, or fluids in the chest (serum, blood, or pus) may all cause a cat to breathe shallowly but faster than usual. Cats may also pant (breathe rapidly with their mouths open) for a brief time when they are afraid or overheated. In hot weather, a cat that appears anxious and pants continuously may be suffering from heat stroke.
Rapid breathing may also indicate stress, fever, pain, shock, dehydration, poisoning, anemia, lung disease, heart disease, or kidney failure. Ongoing symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, coughing, or drinking far more than usual indicate a possible disease. If rapid breathing lasts for more than a minute or two or there are any additional symptoms, seek veterinary care immediately.
Cats that take a just few quick breaths with their mouths open and appear to be sneering or grimacing are actually responding to an interesting smell, passing scent molecules over the vomeronasal organ, a sensory organ in the roof of the mouth. This behaviour is called the Flehmen response, and it is not a cause for concern. After checking out the new scent for a few seconds, the cat’s breathing will return to normal.
Noisy Breathing/Wheezing in Cats
Respiratory illnesses are a common cause of noisy and/or heavy breathing in cats. If a cat’s breathing makes low-pitched snoring or rattling sounds and she has additional symptoms such as coughing, watering or irritated eyes, or runny nose, an infection is the likely culprit, though chronic bronchitis can also cause unusual respiration and coughing.
A sudden onset of noisy or heavy breathing may also indicate swelling in the throat or a foreign object in the larynx. In addition, feline asthma, parasites such as heartworms and lungworms, and bronchial tumours can all cause wheezing or whistling sounds while breathing.
Certain breeds such as Persians and Himalayans may be noisy breathers due to their shortened muzzles. If the problem is triggered by inherited laryngeal paralysis, it usually shows up before these cats reach one year old, though other problems afflicting the larynx, narrowed nostrils, or an elongated soft palate can also cause noisy breathing.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Breathing Problems in Cats
If unusual breathing persists for more than a minute or two, seek veterinary care. Answering the following questions can help your veterinarian make a diagnosis:
- Has the cat been coughing or sneezing?
- Has the cat vomited or gagged?
- Is the breathing problem worse in certain situations or environments?
- Has the cat been ill recently?
- Has the cat been given anaesthesia recently?
- Is the cat taking any medications? If so, which ones?
- Has the cat been spayed?
- Has the cat had heartworms?
- Has the cat travelled recently?
- Could the cat have been exposed to a toxic substance?
- Has the cat suffered an injury?
- Does the problem worsen when the cat exercises or becomes excited?
- Has the cat’s voice changed or is she unable to meow?
- Has the cat been exposed to intense heat?
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the breathing difficulties. It may require administration of oxygen, surgery, removing air or fluids from the chest cavity, tracheal intubation and ventilation, medications, humidified air, bronchodilation, eliminating asthma triggers, or simply minimizing stress at home.
Please note that this article is not intended as a substitute for veterinary care and consultation. All feline medical concerns should be referred to a qualified veterinarian.
- Eldredge, D.M., DVM; Carlson, D.G., DVM; Carlson, L.D., DVM; & Giffin, J.M., MD (2008). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Third Edition. Wiley Publishing, Inc.
- Neely, S., Dr. (n.d.). “Abnormal Breathing in a Cat.” AsktheCatDcotor.com.
- PetMD.com. (2010). “Noisy Breathing in Cats.”
- PetPlace Veterinarians. (2010). “Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats.” PetPlace.com.