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Cat Breathing Problems - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Breathing abnormalities may be in one of many forms such as deep and rapid breathing (hyperpnea), noisy breathing, wheezing, shallow breathing (hypopnea), rapid shallow breathing (tachypnea) and shortness of breath (dyspnea). Any change in breathing should be treated as serious and medical attention sought.

What is the normal breathing rate for a cat?

At rest, a cat breathes approximately 20-30 times per minute which is roughly twice that of a human. The process of breathing begins with inhalation

Respiration should be smooth, quiet and without effort, this is known as eupnea. The suffix "pnea" meaning "breath or breathing". You will note that certain types of breathing difficulty end in pnea.

What are the causes of breathing problems in cats?

There are many possible causes of breathing problems in cats, and many possible locations such as the lungs, the heart, the pulmonary system,

Symptoms of breathing problems in cats:

  • Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body
  • Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke)
  • Coughing
  • Head and neck extended out in front of the body
  • Pale mucous membranes
  • Difficulty standing
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness

Treatment of breathing problems in cats:

Treatment will be aimed at addressing the underlying cause.

Noisy breathing may be suggestive of an upper respiratory infection (cat flu), which is often caused by a virus. Other symptoms include nasal discharge, sneezing, fever, conjunctivitis. In most cases, supportive care will be offered, including removing discharge to assist breathing, antibiotics won't work for viral infections but may be offered to keep secondary bacterial infections at bay, encouraging your cat to continue eating.

Panting is quite normal if the cat has been exercising and/or is stressed (such as visiting the veterinarian). However, it is also a symptom of heat stroke, which is life-threatening. Treatment for heat stroke includes bringing the cat's body temperature down, providing oxygen and treating for dehydration (where necessary).

Wheezing produces a whistling sound and is commonly associated with asthma. Other symptoms of asthma may include pale mucous membranes, coughing, and exercise avoidance. Treatment for asthma may include steroids and/or bronchodilators.  Other causes of wheezing are lower respiratory infections, heartworm, and tumours.

Rapid shallow breathing (tachypnea) has many possible causes including anemia, heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, lung disease, sinus or nasal disorders such as nasal polyps, infection, cancer, FIP, diaphragmatic hernia, hyperthyroidism and lung cancer. Treatment will be aimed at addressing the underlying condition such as treating infection, surgical to treat polyps and hernia, some medications may be prescribed for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Shortness of breath/laboured breathing (dyspnea), causes may include airway obstructions, heart disease, lung disease, lung tumours, foreign body in the nasal passages, pleural effusion, pneumonia, upper respiratory infection, pneumothorax. Treatment will depend on the cause and may include removal of foreign body, supportive care for an upper respiratory infection, thoracentesis to remove fluid accumulation around the lungs, medications to help relieve symptoms of heart disease.

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