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.
What Is Rapid Breathing (Respiratory Rate) in a Cat?
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.
Symptoms of Rapid Breathing in Cats
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:
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 may or may not 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.
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. While some causes of tachypnea are mild and easily treated, many 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.
Diagnosis of Rapid Breathing in Cats
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.
Treatment of Rapid Breathing in Cats
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 may 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 may 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.
Prevention of Rapid Breathing in Cats
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.