How to treat, prevent, & the reasons why you might have a Heavy breathing cat

What to do when you have a heavy breathing cat? Read on to learn the major causes and how to diagnose and treat this condition. Remember, awareness can go a long way, and it can practically save your pet's life.

Difficulty in breathing can be easily noticed as long as you’re familiar with the normal respiration of your feline pet.

Breathing abnormalities can be a result of respiratory distress, or it could be a symptom of an existing chronic health problem.

Your cat's respiratory center in its brain, together with a network of nerves in its chest, is responsible for controlling the movement of breath. Smooth and moderate breathing is an indication that your pet's body is in excellent condition.

Respiration with wheezing accompanied with excessive stomach movement is a clear indication that there's something wrong with your pet's breathing.

Common Symptoms of Respiratory Distress in Felines

  • Head and neck stretching away from the body and elbows splayed when crouching or standing
  • Shallow, noisy, short, rattling or raspy breathing
  • Purplish or bluish gums can indicate lack of oxygen
  • Excessive movement in the abdomen when breathing
  • Whistling sound in the chest
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • A sudden change in behavior (i.e., your usual social kitty goes into hiding all of a sudden)

A cat breathing heavy should be taken to the vet right away for accurate diagnosis and immediate treatment.

Usually, cats breathe with moderate movement of its chest. In case of increased abdominal changes with your kitty's respiration, consider this a sign of respiratory distress.

Furthermore, if your furball holds its mouth part way open when breathing, it may be because its nose or sinuses are congested.

A healthy cat's breathing should be smooth and doesn't make any unnecessary noise or whistling sounds.

It would help if you also considered the physical activity of your kitty. Felines tend to breathe more rapidly after exercising, which is just average.

However, if your kitty continuously pants even without physical activity, that’s not normal at all.

Many pet owners are concerned about the sudden change in their pet's breathing pattern. However, how can we determine which respiration is healthy and which is not?

Normal Respiration Rate in Cats

cat breathing heavy

Naturally, felines breathe more rapidly than humans. So, a cat breathing fast may appear normal at first.

An adult kitty at rest might take around 20 to 25 breaths per minute.

To count the respiration rate of your feline pet, count each breath as one inhalation and one exhalation.

We recommend that you do this while your pet is resting or sleeping to get a more accurate result.

Count the number of breaths your pet takes for one minute. If your sleeping kitty makes less than 20 puffs in a minute, it shouldn't be a cause for concern.

Cat Breathing Heavy: What are the Causes?

cat breathing heavily while resting

There must be a reason why your kitty suddenly breaths heavily. Here are some of the most common causes of respiration issues in felines:

1. Lower Airway Diseases

These diseases include:

  • Feline asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary edema

Lower airway diseases generally describe a condition in which the airways in the lung tissue become inflamed.

Respiratory infections are common in felines, and these conditions impair their ability to get oxygen into their bloodstream.

This forces your kitty to breathe rapidly in its effort to compensate for the lack of oxygen intake.

Pulmonary edema occurs when there's a fluid build-up within the lungs and is often associated with pneumonia.

However, it can also be caused by other factors such as choking, near-drowning, cancer, heart failure, or other systematic illnesses.

2. Pleural Effusion

cat breathing fast

Aside from pulmonary edema, felines can also develop fluid build-up within the pleural cavity that is localized outside of the lungs.

The pleural sac serves as a membrane that covers the lungs that usually contains a small number of fluids.

This fluid is to keep the surface of the lungs slippery and prevents them from adhering to the chest wall.

However, when there’s too much fluid, the excess fluid flows into the pleural cavity and accumulates this space.

As a result, the lungs are unable to inflate as much as they should. Pleural effusion can make a cat breathing heavy because the fluid compresses the lungs so that they can’t fully expand.

3. Upper Airway Problems

Bacteria and viruses are the most common causes of upper airways problems in felines. 

At some point in their lives, most kitties will develop upper respiratory infections that are commonly associated with symptoms including:
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Runny eyes
  • Coughing or gagging

Due to the obstruction of their upper respiratory tract, they are unable to breathe through their nostrils. To catch up, they usually hold their mouths partway open to breathe.

Unlike the more severe lower respiratory tract diseases, upper airway problems can be treated with home care remedies. 

The first thing to do is to clear away the congestion by cleaning any discharge off of your pet’s nose. Nasal discharges can harden in time and may obstruct the airway even more.

Dip a cotton ball in warm water and use this to wipe your pet’s nose to make sure that all lingering discharges are removed.

Then move your kitty in a humid environment to clear away any obstruction in the nostrils. Use a humidifier or place your kitty in the bathroom while the hot water is running.

If these home treatments fail to reduce the congestion and symptoms persist, you may need to consult a vet for further advice.

The possibility of a physical obstruction in the airway such as a tumor or nasopharyngeal polyp should also be considered.

4. Trauma

heavy breathing cat

For heavy breathing cats, it is important to trace back their history of any sustained trauma that may have caused it.

A traumatic physical injury caused by an external force can cause bleeding or puncture in the lungs. 

Heavy breathing in cats can be classified into three types: dyspnea, tachypnea, and panting. 

What causes dyspnea in cats?

cat breathing heavy
  • Obstruction in the trachea caused by tumors, elongated soft palate, or foreign objects getting stuck in the throat
  • Nasal disorders such as bleeding nostrils, infections, tumors or undersized nostrils
  • Lung and lower windpipe diseases including fluid build-up, infections, tumors and heartworms
  • Chest wall disorders caused by physical trauma and paralysis due to poisoning
  • Enlargement of the liver associated with excessive fluid build-up and bloating
  • Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) is a viral disease characterized by the accumulation of fluid in the abdominal and chest cavities
  • Chylothorax, a condition wherein the lymphatic system collects excess fluid and fats from the intestines. The excess liquid returns to the central circulation through the thoracic duct which connects to one of the large veins near the heart. Excessive fluid build-up can rupture the tube which then leads to the spilling of the fluid into the chest.
  • Enlarged heart, or cardiomyopathy, results in inadequate pumping action of the heart which then leads in fluid build-up in the lungs or chest cavity

What to do if your cat has dyspnea?

cat breathing heavily while resting

This is one of the severe conditions wherein you shouldn't risk your pet's life by applying your home remedy treatments.

Labored breathing can be associated with lower respiratory tract problems and more chronic conditions such as FIP and cardiomyopathy.

Early diagnosis of these life-threatening health conditions can help treat the issue before it can progress.

If you suspect your kitty of having dyspnea, you need to take it to the vet as soon as possible.

What causes tachypnea in cats?

heavy breathing cat
  • Low oxygen level in the blood due to hypoglycemia, anemia, blood loss, heartworms, metabolic acidosis or pneumonia
  • Fever can prompt your kitty to breathe rapidly in an attempt to cool down their body temperature.
  • Anxiety and tension can make your kitty breathe faster than normal

This respiratory condition is characterized by rapid and shallow breathing.

Symptoms of tachypnea are not as distressing as the symptoms of dyspnea. Some kitties with tachypnea are not even aware of their rapid breathing.

Therefore, you'll need to be more observant to recognize the symptoms of tachypnea. The symptoms may include:

  • Cyanosis, or a purplish tint to the gums and mucous membrane as an indication of insufficient oxygen
  • A heavy breathing cat that always seems tired and fatigued
  • Cat breathing faster than normal
  • Because they tire out quickly, they would refuse to move or exercise
  • Unlike dyspnea and panting, kitties with tachypnea breaths very rapidly with their mouths closed

What to do if your cat has tachypnea?

Typically, our furry companions exhibit an increased respiratory rate after physical activity such as running, climbing or jumping.

Also, you'll notice rapid respiration in them if they're exposed to stressful events. 

When you’re sure that your pet has calmed down, measure its respiration rate for one minute.

If the respiration rate goes beyond 40 breaths per minute, an immediate trip to the vet is highly advisable.

cat breathing fast

What causes panting in cats?

  • Obesity can bring your kitty to carry too much fat. Overweight kitties that are out of shape may have difficulty in breathing and are likely to pant excessively during exertion 
  • They often breathe rapidly when they’re stressed. You usually see them pant when they’re at the vet or when they’re in the car. Panting is their response mechanism to ease their nerves during stressful situations.
  • Panting can be associated with chronic respiratory diseases such as bronchial disease and asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease such as congestive heart failure can cause a kitty to pant due to shortness of breath

When you see your kitty panting excessively, it means that there's something wrong with its breathing.

Panting is normal even in felines only when they’re exposed to excessive heat or after they’ve done some rigorous exercise.

Their breathing should return to normal after they've cooled and calmed down. 

What should you do if your cat is panting?

cat breathing heavily while resting

Cats typically breathe rapidly with their mouths open while on a walk or after playtime.

Furthermore, they usually pant in hot weather to help cool down their body temperature under the scorching heat.

In these cases, the only thing you need to do is to help them calm and chill down. 

However, a cat breathing heavily while resting may indicate serious health issues.

While it's true that obesity may be the reason for panting, it's still risky to force your pet to workout. If your obese kitty has some underlying lung or heart diseases, overexertion could lead to a more severe problem.

How Are These Problems Diagnosed?

heavy breathing cat

A heavy breathing cat may require a medical emergency if the condition persists for more than 3 minutes.

Remember, a kitty may die after 3 minutes without breathing. 

Rush your heavy breathing cat to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet will be able to diagnose the problem by conducting a thorough physical exam on your pet.

What Treatment Is Available for My Cat?

cat breathing heavy

Treatment for heavy breathing cat will entirely depend on the underlying cause of the problem.

After the initial treatment, a thorough diagnosis is carried out utilizing physical exams and necessary laboratory tests.

For feline asthma, a steroid medication may be administered. Additionally, a special cat inhaler may be prescribed alongside some critical advice on how to train your pet to tolerate these inhalers.

If a cat breathing heavy has an upper respiratory tract infection, some antibiotics may be prescribed.

In less severe cases, your pet may not be even required to be hospitalized.

Pleural effusion is treated by draining the fluid to re-inflate lungs. For pulmonary edema, diuretic medication is often used to drain out excess liquid.

It is crucial to focus on the preventive measures rather than the cure.


heavy breathing cat

You can prevent your pet from getting colds or other upper respiratory tract infection by restricting its contact with outside sources.

More importantly, make sure that your kitty is well-hydrated all the time. Always provide a clean water source in a place where it can easily access.

For finicky kitties, we recommend a water fountain to entice them into drinking.

Heart diseases in felines are mostly due to taurine deficiency. Taurine supplements can be prescribed to prevent these diseases from occurring.


A heavy breathing cat is not a good sign, and it may be indicative of underlying problems.

It is therefore essential to pay attention to your pet's respiration pattern.

Monitoring your pet's respiration rate can help you recognize the symptoms as early as possible. 

It is also important to point out that breathing difficulty is one of the significant causes of death in domestic felines. 

So, you should take this diagnosis seriously and treat as an emergency.