Rapid Breathing in Cats

cat sitting on a bed

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Have you ever noticed your cat breathing quickly while sleeping? If your cat is breathing rapidly, it can be a sign of a variety of issues from stress to heart disease. Cats are generally subtle in showing their caregivers signs of illness so cat caregivers must be especially vigilant to notice symptoms like rapid breathing. 

What Is Normal Breathing (Respiratory Rate) in a Cat?

First, you need to know a healthy respiratory rate (breathing) for a cat, which is 15 to 30 breaths per minute when resting calmly or sleeping. Breaths should include small movements of the chest, if your cats’ 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 or noisy (has a high, harsh or whistling sound) or the cat is having difficulty breathing. 

To measure your cats 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. 

What Is Rapid Breathing in Cats?

Rapid breathing (tachypnea) is a serious a life-threatening condition in which the cat breathes rapidly due to dysfunction of the respiratory system and/ or reduced oxygen. There are several types of breathing disorders which can affect cats, but this article will focus on rapid breathing. When measuring your cat’s respiratory rate, rapid breathing would be defined as anything higher than the normal 15 to 30 breaths per minute. A cat who is hot, stressed, or active may exhibit rapid breathing, but this should decrease after a few minutes. If the breathing does not subside or worsens, it is a symptom of a serious condition that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian immediately. 

Symptoms of Rapid Breathing in Cats

Counting your cats’ breaths can help indicate your cat is breathing fast but there are also a number of other signs that can occur progressively over time or sudden in onset. Any breathing difficulty is a medical emergency and requires urgent veterinary attention.

Signs of Rapid Breathing in Cats

  • Rapidly rising and falling 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

Causes of Rapid Breathing in Cats

Rapid breathing in cats is a symptom of a variety of illnesses and injuries and should be evaluated by your veterinarian right away. 

Some possible causes include:

  • Allergies
  • Anemia
  • Emotional distress
  • Exertion
  • Heart Disease
  • Heat
  • Pain
  • Pleural effusion (abnormal accumulation of fluid within the chest cavity)
  • Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid) 
  • Foreign objects lodged in windpipe or other airway obstruction
  • Respiratory infections
  • Trauma, exposure to toxins, or injury
  • Tumors in chest or throat

Diagnosis of Rapid Breathing in Cats

If your cat is breathing rapidly, consider any factors that may be causing it and remove them from your cats 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 rapid breathing continues despite removing the possible cause, seek veterinary attention. 

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

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

If your cat is struggling to breath, the veterinarian or veterinary technician may take your cat to the treatment area immediately upon you arriving to provide oxygen and stabilize your cat. 

Treatment of Rapid Breathing in Cats

Rapid breathing is a symptom of an underlying medical issue and treatment varies depending on severity of illness and diagnosis. If your cat is struggling to breath, the veterinarian or veterinary technician may take your cat to the treatment area immediately upon arrival to stabilize your cat.  This will include providing oxygen, placing an IV catheter to administer emergency drugs and fluids intravenously.  

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. Antibiotic and anti-inflammatories will be prescribed in cases of infectious or inflammatory illnesses.

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 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 date to share with your veterinarian. This will help your veterinarian narrow down potential causes and recognize possible triggers.