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Breathing is a part of the respiratory system which involves moving air into and out of the lungs. Oxygen is pulled into the lungs, which is then transported to all the cells within the body via the bloodstream, and carbon dioxide is expelled.
There are a number of causes of difficulty breathing in cats, and different types of breathing abnormalities, listed below.
- Deep and rapid breathing (hyperpnea)
- Noisy breathing, wheezing
- Shallow breathing (hypopnea)
- Rapid shallow breathing (tachypnea)
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
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.
There are many possible causes of breathing problems in cats, and many possible locations such as the lungs, the heart, the pulmonary system.
Causes are split into obstructive, restrictive or vascular.
- Airway obstruction such as food lodged in the airways.
- Asthma - Caused by an allergen, the airways react by constricting.
- Pleural effusion - Excess fluid that accumulates between the two pleural layers, the fluid-filled space that surrounds the lungs.
- Ascites - Build-up of fluid in the abdominal cavity which can compress the diaphragm and lungs.
- Pulmonary embolism - A blood clot in the pulmonary arteries or branches of the lungs.
- Blood disorders - Anemia
- Cytauxzoonosis - An often fatal infection caused by the single celled Cytauxzoon felis.
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis
- Fever - Caused by pyometra, eclampsia/milk fever and other types of infections.
- Heart disorders - Heartworm, heart disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy)
- Heat stroke
- Lung disease
- Upper respiratory infections - There are a number of pathogens which can cause upper respiratory infections, which are similar to colds and flu that we experience.
Breathing difficulties can be acute or chronic depending on the underlying cause. Often symptoms are subtle and pet owners may not immediately recognise there is a problem. Symptoms may include:
- Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body in a Bulldog stance
- Head and neck extended out in front of the body
- Pale or blue tinged mucous membranes
- Difficulty standing
- Noisy breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke)
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.
Treatment - 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.