Cat Panting – Causes of Panting in Cats

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(Last Updated On: November 24, 2018)
When is panting normal?  When is panting not normal?   Causes   Other symptoms to look for    Diagnosis     Treatment

cat panting
Image Art Bromage, Flickr

At a glance

Panting is defined as open mouthed breathing, it is not as common in cats as it is dogs, however the appearance is the same. It can be a sign that a cat is having difficulty breathing.

Causes:

Normal

Not all panting indicates an underlying condition. It is normal for a cat to pant after playing, when they are stressed and as a way to cool down. The latter can be an indicator that your cat is suffering heat stress.

Abnormal

  • Asthma
  • Anemia
  • Bronchitis
  • Fever
  • Heat stress
  • Heat stroke
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Heart disorders
  • Pleural effusion
  • Pneumothorax
  • Pain
  • Shock

Treatment:

The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care to help the cat breathe.

Panting is the open-mouthed, rapid breathing, it is much more commonly seen in dogs than cats. Some cats are more prone to panting than others. In some circumstances, panting can be normal, but it may also be a sign of an underlying problem.

When is panting normal?

Panting after exercise or play can be normal, increased activity (during exercise) requires more oxygen, which your cat obtains by breathing more rapidly (just as we do when we have been running). The cat in the photo above is panting because she had been chasing toys.

Panting is also means by which a cat lowers his body temperature, which can occur during exercise or on a hot day.

Anxiety and stress

Stressful situations such as going to the veterinarian can cause your cat to hyperventilate. This is generally not serious.

Heat stress

Sometimes a cat will pant on a hot day too, this is a sign of heat stress and is warning to take steps to cool your cat down. If you notice any of the following, seek medical treatment immediately:

  • Bright red tongue
  • Drooling
  • Dark red gums
  • Anxiety
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bleeding from the nose

When is panting not normal?

Panting (open-mouthed breathing), rapid breathing (tachypnea) and breathlessness/shortness of breath (dyspnea) all have similar symptoms and may be used interchangeably when describing your cat’s symptoms. Tachypnea and dyspnea can be confused with panting, but the pet owner should always be on alert to a cat who is breathing with his mouth open and/or rapidly who hasn’t exercised or isn’t in a stressful situation (such as at the veterinarian’s office).

While the title of this article is panting, the medical conditions listed below relate to tachypnea and dyspnea. They are a sign that your cat is having difficulty getting enough oxygen. This may be due to low levels of oxygen in the blood or difficulty transporting the blood to the tissues (such as heart problems).

Causes

There are a number of possible causes of panting/rapid breathing in cats. Most relate to lack of oxygen in the blood, heart conditions which means oxygen isn’t transported around the body as efficiently as it should be or breathing difficulty (due to obstruction of the airways, which once again, results in low oxygen levels).

Asthma

lso known as feline bronchial disease, allergic bronchitis, allergic airway disease and allergic asthma), asthma is a noninfectious respiratory condition that is characterised by acute constriction of the lower airways, which results in coughing and respiratory distress. Asthma is one of the most common causes of respiratory diseases in cats, affecting around one in 100, attacks may range from mild to severe and life-threatening.Inhalation of an allergen is the trigger of asthma with common allergens such as pollen, perfume, cigarette smoke, smoke from household fires, mould, household sprays (hairspray, air fresheners etc.) and dust from cat litter.

Treatment:

  • Oral glucocorticoids – Reduce inflammation with oral glucocorticoids. There may be side effects from long-term use of steroids such as diabetes, pancreatitis, increased urination, weight gain, behavioural changes. Cats start on oral steroids until the condition is stable. Medication will then be reduced until your cat is switched to inhaled steroids.
  • Inhalant glucocorticoids. Same as above, they reduce inflammation. There is a relatively new inhaler system on the market called AeroKat, Flovent is the most commonly used inhalant steroid. As inhaled steroids don’t get into the system as much as oral steroids, reducing side effects. Administer by placing a mask over your cat’s mouth and nose, the advantages are that the medication targets the airways directly.
  • Bronchodilators: These help open the airway at times of severe coughing or wheezing, the most common bronchodilator is albuterol (Proventil®, Volmax®, Ventolin®).

Anemia

Anemia is a condition characterised by a reduced number of red blood (also known as erythrocytes) cells in the blood. Is not a disease in itself but a symptom of an underlying condition. It may be caused by blood loss, red blood cell destruction (known as hemolysis) or inadequate red blood cell production.

Treatment:

The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care, which can include:

  • Volume replacement – Hypovolemic shock is a life-threatening condition which occurs when a large portion of the blood is lost. Immediate treatment for this is volume replacement to ensure blood volume to prevent ischemia (restricted blood supply to the tissues, which results in lack of oxygen and glucose), shock and multi-organ failure.
  • Blood transfusion may be indicated for acutely anemic cats or cats who have suffered significant blood loss or kittens who have neonatal isoerythrolysis. Blood typing must be carried out before a blood transfusion. Cats have three blood types, Type A, Type B and Type AB.  Type A cats can only receive type A blood, Type B cats can only receive type B blood and Type AB cats can receive blood from type AB blood or type A blood.
  • Erythropoietin – The kidneys produce a hormone, erythropoietin, which instructs the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Cats with kidney failure often have a low red blood cell count. Only the human form is available and some cats may eventually recognise this substance as foreign and antibodies will be created against it.
  • Oral iron supplementation for cats with iron deficiency.
  • Oxygen therapy for severely anemic cats.

Bronchitis

Inflammation of the mucus membrane of the bronchial tubes that can be caused by viral or bacterial infections.

Treatment:

Find and address the underlying cause and bronchodilators to open up the cat’s airways and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.

Fever

Fever is an increase in body temperature which can be caused by infection, inflammation, certain drugs, cancer, endocrine disorders (hypoparathyroidism) and idiopathic (no known cause), infections are the most common cause of fever in cats.

Treatment:

Generally temperatures < 105°F (40.5°C) should be monitored closely if the temperature rises above 105°F then veterinary attention is required. Treatment can include:

  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
  • Supportive care such as fluids, nutritional care for viral infections while your cat fights off the infection.
  • Surgery and/or chemotherapy for malignant tumours.
  • Glucorcoids or immunosuppressive drugs for immune or inflammatory causes.
  • Analgesics, anti-nausea medication, and supportive care to treat pancreatitis.
  • Ceasing medications (if possible) or change medications to treat drug-induced fever.
  • Anti-fungal medications for fungal diseases.
  • Calcium and vitamin D to treat hypoparathyroidism.
  • Addressing the cause of hemolytic anemia and in some cases blood transfusion.

Heart disorders

Heartworm, cardiovascular disease, heart murmur, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. All of these conditions mean that your heart is not working as efficiently as it should be, transporting oxygenated blood around the body. A heart which is not beating efficiently can lead to the build up of fluid in the lungs and abdomen.

Treatment:

  • Heartworm –  A wait and see approach for asymptomatic cats. If the cat is displaying symptoms of heartworm infection then treatment may be necessary to kill the worm(s). But this treatment carries the risk of a dead worm causing a pulmonary embolism.
  • Heart murmur – As secondary heart murmurs are caused by an underlying condition, treating the cause is necessary. Primary heart murmurs require no treatment.
  • Cardiomyopathies – Treatment may include diuretics, blood thinning drugs, and beta blockers.   Taurine supplements to cats with dilated cardiomyopathy.
  • Congenital heart disease – Most cases of congenital heart disease result in death within the first year of life. Surgical treatment is possible in some cases if caught early.

Heat stress

A precursor to heat stroke. A cat who is overheating will pant to try and cool down. If your cat is panting on a hot day, it is important to try and cool him down by bringing him indoors, turning on the air conditioning or turning on fans and offering him cold water (put ice cubes in on hot days).

Treatment:

  • Move the to a cool/shady spot, turn on air conditioning or fans if possible to cool the cat down and help with evaporative cooling.
  • Slowly bring the cat’s temperature down at home by wrapping him in cool, damp towels. Keep water away from the mouth and nose.
  • Spray the cat with cool water.
  • Apply ice packs or frozen vegetables to the head and between the legs.
  • Put rubbing alcohol on the cat’s paws and legs to assist in bringing the temperature down.
  • Offer plenty of cool, fresh water to drink.

Heat stroke

Medically known as hyperthermia, heatstroke is a life-threatening medical condition in which the body’s internal organs (liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain) begin to shut down as a result of elevated body temperature caused by high temperatures and humidity. Old cats, kittens, sick cats, brachycephalic breeds (Persians and Exotics) and cats with heart conditions are at increased risk.

Treatment:

Controlled cooling

  • The veterinarian will carefully bring your cat’s body temperature down to a safe level with lukewarm water and fans.

Volume (fluid) replacement

  • Intravenous crystalloid solution every  minutes until the veterinarian sees an improvement

Manage secondary complications

  • Oxygen therapy will be given if your cat is having difficulty breathing.
  • Heatstroke can be associated with swelling in the throat, aggravating the problem. Your vet may give the cat a cortisone injection to treat this. [1]
  • Your cat will be carefully monitored for signs of kidney or liver failure or disseminated intravascular coagulation.

Hyperthyroidism

Also known as thyrotoxicosis, hyperthyroidism (FHT) is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder that is caused by the overactivity of the thyroid gland due to a benign tumour which speeds up your cat’s metabolism. Increased metabolism leads to weight loss, constant hunger, increased heart rate and rapid breathing due to increased body heat.

Treatment:

There are a number of treatment options which include radioactive iodine therapy to destroy the tumour, surgery to remove the tumour, medications and switching to a low-iodine diet.

Pleural effusion

Pleural effusion is an abnormal buildup of fluid up in the pleural cavity, the thin fluid-filled space that lies between the lungs and the chest wall.Pleural effusion is a symptom, with an underlying disorder causing this fluid to build up. The buildup of excessive fluid leads to difficulty breathing, due to the inability of the lungs to fully expand.Most fluids can be classified as transudates or exudates. Transudate (protein poor/clear watery fluid) effusion or exudate (protein rich/thick fluid) effusion.

There are a number of possible causes including heart disease, liver disease, cancer, fluid overload, lung lobe torsion, diaphragmatic hernia, blood clotting disorders (usually due to ingestion of rat poison) pulmonary embolism, infection, drug reaction and pancreatitis.

Treatment:

  • Thoracentesis: To remove fluid and allow lungs to expand. A needle or drainage tube will be inserted through the skin and into the pleural cavity to remove the fluid. A chest drain may remain in place for several days to help drain away excess fluid.
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
  • Furosemide to promote diuresis in cats with chronic heart failure.
  • Surgery for neoplasia, trauma, foreign body inhalation, obstruction,  hernia, lung lobe torsion.
  • Supportive care and anti-virals for FIP.
  • Nutritional support, pain medications, supportive care, antibiotics, and antiemetics for pancreatitis.
  • Medications to treat heartworm or fungal infections.
  • Induce vomiting, activated charcoal, stomach pump, vitamin K and possibly blood transfusion for rat poisoning.

Pneumothorax

Pneumothorax (new-mo-thorax) is an abnormal accumulation of air in the pleural cavity which is between the lungs and the chest wall. Normally there is a small amount of serous fluid in the pleural space which acts as a lubricant during breathing. Air entering the pleural space means there is less room for the lungs to expand when the cat inhales and causes the lung(s) to collapse (which is why you the term collapsed lung is often used when describing pneumothorax).There are three classifications of pneumothorax in cats depending on the cause.

  • Traumatic – Penetrating wounds, hit by a vehicle, fractured ribs, fall from a height and lung infection
  • Spontaneous – Pulmonary bleb, heartworm, lung parasites, pulmonary abscess, grass awn migration, asthma, rupture of the bronchus, trachea, lung or esophagus
  • Iatrogenic – Bronchoscopy, thoracocentesis, thoracostomy tube, intubation, lung surgery

Treatment:

  • Thoracocentesis  to remove trapped air for cases with larger volumes of trapped air.
  • Tube thoracostomy (chest tube) where recurrent thoracocentesis has occurred. A thin tube is inserted into the pleural space to remove air, the tube remains in place so that air can be removed intermittently or continually via a suction unit.
  • Surgery will be necessary to treat cats with penetrating wounds, grass awns or tumours.
  • Surgery to treat blebs, bullae and lung abscess if medical management isn’t successful.
  • Analgesics to relieve pain.
  • If blood oxygen levels are low, oxygen therapy may be necessary. This can also help to push the free air in the pleural cavity into the pleural blood vessels.

Pain

It is not unusual for a cat in pain to pant, this may include when they are giving birth. Obviously, aside from giving birth, a cat in pain should be seen by a veterinarian. Cats are masters at hiding signs of sickness, if a cat is panting in pain, it needs immediate veterinary attention.

Treatment:

The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care and pain relief. Never administer painkillers to a cat as all over the counter pain medications are toxic.

Shock

Shock is a life-threatening condition defined as a lack of blood flow which results in the body not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients.   Any condition which affects the heart, vessels or blood volume can induce shock. If not recognised and treated immediately it can be fatal.Treatment:

Treatment is aimed at providing supportive care and restoring and maintaining blood flow along with addressing the underlying cause.

  • Stemming blood loss
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Providing external warmth (if suffering from hypothermia)

Shock is extremely serious and can quickly kill if not treated immediately. If your cat has been hit by a car but appears happy and well it is still important to take him to the veterinarian for a check-up because he may be in shock without you knowing.

Other symptoms

  • Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body with the head and neck extended (bulldog stance) – This indicates that your cat is having difficulty breathing.
  • Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke)
  • Blue or pale gum colour
  • Coughing
  • Pale mucous membranes due to anemia or shock
  • Difficulty standing
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness
  • Drooling

Diagnosing the cause

Your vet will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and look for other symptoms (such as those listed above). During examination, he will listen to the heart and lungs for an abnormal heartbeat and lung sounds.

He may wish to perform some diagnostic tests including:

  • Baseline tests – Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis. These tests evaluate the overall health of the cat an can look for liver and kidney dysfunction, diabetes, infection and inflammation.
  • Heartworm testing – A blood test to check for the presence of antigens or antibodies in the blood.
  • T3 and T4 blood tests –  To detect elevated levels of the hormones T3 and T4 are performed in cats who are suspected of having hyperthyroidism.
  • ECG (electrocardiogram) – This is an ultrasound reading of the heart to check for possible heartworms or other heart abnormalities.
  • Ultrasound (abdominal, heart) – To check for heartworm, fluid build-up in the abdomen or around the heart and tumours.

Supportive care

In addition to the treatments listed above, a panting cat will often need supportive care to help him breathe and manage symptoms. This can include:

  • Oxygen therapy.
  • Medications to open up the cat’s airways (bronchodilators).
  • Cage rest.
  • IV fluids to treat dehydration, if necessary.