Dogs pant. Cats don't. Or do they?

If you see your cat breathing heavily, with great effort, erratically, or panting (opened-mouth breathing), it is indeed worth exploring further. Abnormal breathing in felines can have various causes, and you should review them one by one. Sometimes, fast breathing in cats is no major concern, while it might also indicate serious health issues. Read on to find out what heavy breathing in felines looks like, what might cause it, and how concerned you should be.

Dyspnea in Cats

If your cat is panting or breathing heavily, it could signal that they have dyspnea. Have you heard of it before? Technically, according to Cornell's University College of Veterinary Medicine, it is not a disease. It is more of an umbrella term indicating many different feline health disorders, mostly related to difficulties with inhaling and exhaling. Another frequently used definition for heavy breathing in cats is respiratory distress.

You should be concerned if your cat appears to be frightened by the change in their breathing, drooling or coughing while breathing, or struggling to get a breath. Let's dive deeper into what labored breathing in felines looks like.

What Heavy Breathing in Cats Looks Like

Generally, you are not supposed to really notice your cat breathing. If you see your cat breathing heavily, it might be connected with stress, anxiety, or overheating. Sometimes, felines may also display labored breathing, which strongly resembles cat panting. Labored breathing in cats looks a lot like panting in dogs.

While it is OK for a cat to pant like a dog, this behavior must be infrequent and not accompanied by flaring nostrils and other worrying symptoms. For instance, if you see your cat panting after playing during a warm summer day, which lasts for a few minutes and is irregular, it is generally not a worrying sign.

There are several signs to look for that your cat is in respiratory distress. A few of the most common include:

  • Standing or crouching with elbows splayed and the head and neck stretched away from the body
  • Tachypnea (increased respiratory rate, up to 40 breaths per minute)
  • Shallow, short, noisy, or particularly raspy or rattling breaths
  • Regular breathing with mouse open
  • Blue or purple gums (which might indicate your cat can't get enough oxygen)
  • Accompanying behavioral changes like hiding, loss of appetite, or lethargy

If your cat shows any of these signs, contact a veterinarian as quickly as possible for a thorough evaluation.

The Causes of Heavy Breathing

Alright, but why do cats pant, exactly? What causes difficulty breathing, and how to eliminate such stressors preventively? Many things can cause your cat's breathing to change, some serious, some not so much.

Singular events

Why do cats pant without other symptoms? Some breathing problems in cats are caused by a singular event, such as a fall, blunt force trauma, or staying in heat for too long. Uncommonly, panting can simply be induced by pain, stress, or shock accompanying some kind of traumatic event.

You should still remember that a panting cat is much rarer than dogs, even when stressed or shocked. It means you should immediately consider what your feline friend experienced right before exhibiting panting. Also, this type of panting will go away once your cat has a chance to rest and calm down for a few minutes.

But if your cat is not stressed, asthmatic, or has allergies, you should consider other heavy breathing causes in felines.

Asthma

Some cats have asthma (just like humans!), making breathing more challenging for all felines. For asthmatic cats, such symptoms as difficulty breathing, open-mouthed breathing, or coughing are quite common.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

One of the possible causes of heavy cat breathing is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This cardiac disease means that a cat’s heart is enlarged, pumping more blood, thus accumulating fluid in a cat’s chest or lungs.

Except for open-mouthed and hardened breathing, cats with an enlarged heart might also show signs of lethargy. Beware that an enlarged heart can also lead to congestive heart failure, which is also characterized by difficult breathing. If you have any suspicion that your feline friend has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, consult with a vet to conduct echocardiography and discuss further actions.

Feline infectious peritonitis

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a viral disease caused by a feline coronavirus, which we mentioned in our article on coronavirus in pets. FIP develops quite rapidly, showing the signs of appetite loss, weight loss, depression, and fever. Because of its rapid development, cats can accumulate fluid in the abdomen, which also makes it complicated to breathe normally.

Respiratory infection

It might also be possible that your cat is panting or has difficulty breathing because of a feline upper respiratory infection (URI). This infection is inflicted by bacterial agents, whereas its common symptoms are sneezing, conjunctivitis, and nasal congestion.

Yet, as specified by VCA Hospitals, in severe cases of respiratory infection, felines can experience difficulty breathing. If your cat shows difficulty breathing and one of the mentioned symptoms, call your vet immediately.

Other causes

Note that some other heavy breathing causes in cats include pneumonia, tumors, infections, and bleeding. Some cats can suffer breathing effects due to heartworm disease.

Allergic reactions, particularly anaphylactic ones, are also to blame for some breathing problems. Since it's generally complicated to diagnose these causes on your own, heading straight to a qualified veterinarian is a must. To rule out any immediate and pressing dangers to your cat's wellbeing, any breathing problems should be assessed by a vet as soon as possible.

Treating and Preventing Heavy Breathing in Cats

cat breathing heavily while resting

Treating difficult feline breathing depends entirely on the cause. FIP, for instance, can cause fluid to accumulate in the chest, resulting in troubled breathing; a vet should monitor viral infections in case dehydration or other side effects set in. Likewise, identifying a foreign body in your cat's airway or a tumor in your cat's chest will necessitate entirely different treatment plans.

A whole different story is with the prevention of heavy breathing, which depends on managing your cat's health comprehensively. Mind that a normal cat’s respiratory rate is 15-30 breaths per minute while resting or sleeping. You can check the respiratory rate on your own by simply counting breaths a few times to ensure that the results are consistent. If you see more than 30 breaths per minute, accompanied by other worrying symptoms, such as lethargy, blue gums, or hiding, you should contact a vet immediately.

Be sure to have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian at least once a year, and keep the heartworm, flea, and tick prescriptions current. Knowing your cat's normal behavior is the first step in identifying when something is out-of-whack. Remember, you're always your cat's first line of defense.