Cat Breathing Problems – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


Normal breathing rate for cats    Causes    Symptoms    Treatment

cat breathing problems

 At a glance:

About: Breathing disorders can come in a number of forms and for a number or reasons. Any type of breathing problem is a medical emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention.

Causes: There are many causes including heart failure, fluid build up in the abdomen or chest, a blockage in the pulmonary artery (embolism), infections, tumours, asthma, low oxygen levels in the blood.

Types: Rapid breathing, open mouthed breathing, noisy breathing and laboured breathing.

Symptoms: This depends on the type of breathing problem but may include:

  • Open mouthed breathing
  • Coughing
  • Elbows sticking out
  • Leghargy
  • Blue mucous membranes
  • Difficulty standing

Diagnosis: Baseline tests as well as imaging to evaluate the internal structures, electrocardiogram and thorcentesis.

Treatment: This depends on the underlying cause, but will include supportive care.

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, which we have listed below.

  • Polypnea/tachypnea – Rapid shallow breathing, sometimes open-mouthed (panting)
  • Sibilant rhonchi – Wheezing/noisy breathing
  • Hypopnea – Shallow breathing
  • Dyspnea – Shortness of breath

Normal feline respiration:

At rest, a cat breathes approximately 20-30 times per minute which is approximately 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 types of breathing difficulty end in pnea.

Types and causes of breathing abnormalities:

Hyperpnea (rapid and heavy breathing)

  • Hypocalcemia/low blood calcium – Which may be due to hypoparathyroidism, milk fever, kidney disease, pancreatitis, hypoalbuminemia and vitamin D deficiency.

Tachypnea/polypnea (rapid open-mouthed breathing and panting)

  • Shock
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Heat stress (a precursor to heatstroke)
  • Heatstroke
  • Asthma
  • Pleural effusion which may be due to congestive heart failure, liver failure, hypoalbuminenimia, fluid overload, pulmonary embolism, diaphragmatic hernia, cancer, lung lobe torsion, pancreatitis, drug reaction, penetrating trauma, abscess, infection or bleeding
  • Heart disorders (heartworm, heart disease, congestive heart failure)
  • Pulmonary embolism/blockage in the pulmonary artery or one of its branches, most often a blood clot but other causes may include gas bubble, broken off piece of dead heartworm or a fat globule (which may be due to hypercoagulability, blood clots, heartworms, vasculitis or tumours)
  • Pulmonary edema/fluid in the lungs (which may be due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, airway obstruction, certain medications, pneumonia, lungworm, kidney disease, allergic reactions, seizures, head trauma)
  • Anemia/low red blood cell count (which may be due to parasites, blood loss, tumours, blood clotting disorders, myelodysplasia, feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, cytauxzoonosis, chronic renal disease, certain cancers)
  • Low levels of oxygen in the blood (which may be due to heart disease, certain poisons, pyothorax, pleural effusion, pulmonary embolism, tracheal or laryngeal collapse, obstruction in the airway due to foreign object or cancer, pneumonia, hypoglycemia, hypotension, respiratory paralysis such as from tick poisoning)
  • Bronchitis
  • Hyperthyroidism (benign tumour of the thyroid gland)
  • Pneumothorax/air in the pleural cavity – Penetrating wounds, fractured ribs, trauma from a fall or hit by a car, lung infection, pulmonary bleb, cancer, parasites such as heartworm, lungworm, lung flukes, lung lesion due to cysts or abscess, grass awn migration, asthma, rupture of the bronchus, trachea, lung or esophagus
  • Pyothorax/pus in the pleural space of the lungs (which may be due to penetrating wounds or trauma, inhalation of foreign objects such as grass awn, bacterial infection, parasitic migration, tumours, ruptured abscess and lung lobe torsion
  • Feline infectious peritonitis – A viral infection which is caused by a mutation of the corona virus
  • Fever
  • Pain

  Sibilant rhonchi (wheezing and/or noisy breathing)

  • Airway obstruction
  • Tumours of the windpipe or throat
  • Asthma
  • Acromegaly (which may cause an enlargement of soft tissues in the throat)
  • Upper respiratory infection (cat flu)

Dyspnea (difficult or laboured breathing)

  • Pleural effusion (which may be due to congestive heart failure, liver failure, hypoalbuminemia, fluid overload, pulmonary embolism, diaphragmatic hernia, cancer, lung lobe torsion, pancreatitis, drug reaction, penetrating trauma, abscess, infection, bleeding)
  • Pyothorax/pus in the pleural space of the lungs (which may be due to penetrating wounds or trauma, inhalation of foreign object such as grass awn, bacterial infection, parasitic migration, tumours, ruptured abscess, lung lobe torsion)
  • Ascites/fluid in the abdominal cavity (which may be due to feline infectious peritonitis, right-sided heart failure, cancer within the abdomen, hypoalbuminemia, bleeding disorders which spill blood into the abdomen, ruptured bladder which spills urine into the abdomen)
  • Pulmonary embolism/blockage in the pulmonary artery or one of its branches, most often a blood clot but other causes may include gas bubble, broken off piece of dead heartworm or a fat globule (which may be due to hypercoagulability, blood clots, heartworms, vasculitis, tumours)
  • Pulmonary edema/fluid in the lungs (which may be due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, airway obstruction, certain medications, pneumonia, lungworm, kidney disease, allergic reactions, seizures, head trauma)
  • Pneumothorax/air in the pleural cavity (which may be due to penetrating wounds, fractured ribs, trauma from a fall or hit by a car, lung infection, pulmonary bleb, cancer, parasites such as heartworm, lungworm, lung flukes, lung lesion due to cysts or abscess, grass awn migration, asthma, rupture of the bronchus, trachea, lung or esophagus)
  • Heart disease
  • Infection of the upper airways
  • Tumours
  • Elongated soft palate
  • Foreign object in the throat
  • Pneumonia
  • Asthma
  • Tick paralysis
  • Hyperthyroidism (benign tumour of the thyroid gland)
  • Lung disease

Symptoms:

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 head and neck extended out in front of the body
  • Elbows sticking out, known as Bulldog stance
  • Coughing
  • Pale or blue-tinged mucous membranes (cyanosis)
  • Difficulty standing
  • Noisy breathing
  • Panting, open-mouthed breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke)
  • Flared nostrils
  • Hiding
  • Reluctance to move


Image Karen, Flickr

Look at the cat in the image above, his head is slightly extended, his mouth open and his elbows are sticking out.

Any signs of difficulty breathing, no matter how small, should be immediately investigated by a veterinarian.

Diagnosis:

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you including known medical conditions, duration of symptoms if other household cats have similar symptoms if it is seasonal if your cat is indoors/outdoors.

Depending on the index of suspicion, your veterinarian will need to run some diagnostic tests, which may include:

  • Complete blood count, biochemical profile, and urinalysis are all routine tests to evaluate the overall health of your cat. These can help to diagnose hypercalcemia, anemia, and infection.
  • Xray or ultrasound to look for tumours, blockages, pulmonary embolism, pleural effusion and evaluate the heart and lungs.
  • Electrocardiogram to evaluate the heart.
  • Endoscope to evaluate the nasal passages and airways. Biopsies may be taken during this procedure.
  • Thoracentesis is a procedure in which a needle is inserted into the pleural space to remove excess fluid, which is not only diagnostic but will also give relief to your cat.

Treatment:

Treatment will be aimed at addressing the underlying cause, as there are so many potential causes, it is impractical to list the treatment for them all.

Cat flu:

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.

Heat stroke:

Treatment for heat stroke includes bringing the cat’s body temperature down, providing oxygen and treating for dehydration (where necessary).

Asthma:

Treatment for asthma may include steroids and/or bronchodilators.

Heartworm:

There are no medications safe to treat heartworms in cats. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend a wait and see approach, in severe cases, medications will be given off-label to kill the worms, but this comes with its own risks so should be carefully weighed up.

Airway obstruction:

Surgery to remove the obstruction.

Pleural effusion:

Treating the underlying cause, as well as oxygen therapy to stabilise the cat followed by thoracentesis to remove fluid which allows the lungs to expand.

Hyperthyroidism:

Low iodine diet which results in a decreased production of thyroid hormone, surgery to remove the tumour or radioactive iodine treatment to kill the tumour.

Pulmonary edema:

Treating the underlying cause as well as diuretics to remove excess fluids by increasing urine output, oxygen therapy, vasodilators to open up the airways, sedatives and cage rest.

Hypocalcemia:

Treating the underlying cause as well as intravenous administration of calcium gluconate and vitamin D supplements.

Anemia:

Treating the underlying cause as well as blood transfusion, erythropoietin is a hormone produced by the kidneys to stimulate red blood cell production, cats with kidney disease often have low levels of this hormone, oxygen therapy in severe cases.

Diabetic ketoacidosis:

Treating the underlying cause, where possible as well as intravenous fluids and electrolytes to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances and frequent administration of short-acting insulin.

Shock:

Stemming blood loss if it has occurred, fluid therapy, oxygen therapy, and supportive care.

Tick paralysis:

Antiserum which contains antibodies against the tick toxin, oxygen therapy, intravenous fluids and cage rest.

Pneumonia:

Treating the underlying cause such as antibiotics for bacterial infection, as well as fluid therapy to treat dehydration, oxygen therapy and cage rest.

Pneumothorax:

Treating the underlying cause as well as thoracocentesis to remove larger volumes of trapped air or a tube thoracostomy where recurrent thoracocentesis has occurred. Oxygen therapy and pain relief if necessary.

Acromegaly:

Surgery to remove the pituitary gland, this treatment will require lifelong administration of hormones.  Radiation therapy to kill the tumour, or medications to inhibit the production of growth hormones.

Elongated soft palate:

Conventional or laser surgery to correct the palate.

Tumours:

Surgery to remove tumours where possible as well as radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

Bronchitis:

Treating the underlying cause where possible as well as bronchodilators to open the airways.

Feline infectious peritonitis (wet form):

There is currently no cure for FIP and treatment is palliative although there is a potential new treatment on the horizon with a small trial showing a high success rate. The treatment is a broad-spectrum anti-viral known as GC376.

Low levels of oxygen in the blood:

Treating the underlying cause as well as supportive care such as painkillers, oxygen therapy, fluid therapy, nutritional support and blood transfusion where necessary.

Heatstroke:

Decreasing body temperature by introducing cool fluids intravenously or by enema, oxygen therapy and in some cases corticosteroids to reduce swelling in the throat.

Pulmonary embolism:

Cage rest, oxygen therapy, fluid therapy, thrombolytics which are medications to break down the clot, and possibly anticoagulants to reduce the occurrence of blood clots forming. Unfortunately, the prognosis is poor for cats with this condition.

Pyothorax:

Treating the underlying cause as well as oxygen therapy, bronchodilators or nebulizers may be necessary to help your cat breath. Thoracic drainage tubes to remove fluids from the pleural cavity, pain medications, intravenous fluids and nutritional support may also be required.

Ascites:

Treating the underlying cause as well as removal of fluid from the abdomen (abdominocentesis), diuretics to promote the production of urine and dandelion extract to prevent fluid build up.

Heart disease:

Surgery where possible but in many cases treatment is supportive, which may include exercise reduction, medications to remove fluid build up, low sodium diet.

Upper airway infection:

These are usually self limiting in healthy adult cats. Supportive care will be given including fluid therapy if necessary, and nutritional support, removal of nasal and eye discharge as well as steam therapy. If the cause is bacterial, antibiotics will be prescribed.