Heavy breathing in cats occurs when they have difficulty breathing. The medical term for this is dyspnea. There are many factors that can cause dyspnea in cats and in this article we are going to list them and go through the characteristic symptoms that cats display when they have difficulties breathing so that you can recognize them and take your cat to the vet as soon as possible. Heavy breathing in cats should be considered a medical emergency. There is little you can do for your cat at home and it is important that you take it to a vet clinic as quickly as possible because this could be a life-threatening condition.
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The Physiology of the Respiratory System in Cats
Before we get to the pathology, let’s review the physiology of the respiratory system in cats. The first part of the respiratory apparatus is the nose, followed by the throat, which includes the pharynx and the larynx, then the trachea (also known as the windpipe), then the lungs. The trachea branches into two separate tubes, called bronchi, which enter the lungs.
The tube that enters the lung is also known as the primary bronchi. Inside the lung, the primary bronchi branch into separate smaller bronchi called bronchioles, which, in turn, branch into even smaller bronchioles. The branching continues until the alveoli – the last unit of the bronchial tree. Alveoli are small sacs where the passage of gases between blood and air occurs- oxygen passes in arterial blood, and carbon dioxide passed from venal blood.
The oxygen is then carried through the arteries to all the organs in the body. As for the carbon dioxide, after it passes from the venal blood into the lungs, it is excreted through the respiratory system and eliminated through the nose in expiration. The respiratory process must occur to sustain life and it is controlled by the respiratory center in the brain and the nerves in the chest. If the respiratory center is affected, then the respiratory process is affected as well.
The lungs are covered in two thin layers of tissue called the pleura. The first layer adheres closely to the lung and it is called the visceral pleura. The second layer lines the chest wall and it is called the parietal pleura. The space between these two layers is known as the pleural space and it is filled with fluid that permits the lung to glide inside the chest as it inflates during inspiration and deflates during expiration.
The Pathology of the Respiratory System
Breathing difficulties in cats are generally referred to as dyspnea. Excessively rapid breathing is called tachypnea or polypnea. This can affect cats of all ages and it should be considered a serious condition because it can quickly become life-threatening.
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Symptoms of Respiratory Distress in Cats
It is very important that cat owners are able to recognize dyspnea in their cats. Should you notice that your cat is breathing heavily, call your vet right away and take your cat to the clinic. Here’s what you should watch out for:
Dyspnea is not a disease, it is a clinical sign. It occurs secondary to a disease. When cats experience difficulties breathing, they quickly become alarmed. They do not move too much, they do not drink water, they do not eat because their main focus is to catch their breath. The cat tries to get as much air in as possible, so the nostrils will be flared – they are opened as much as possible to get as much air in as possible.
The cat will move its belly and chest while breathing to intensify it. The cat will open its mouth to get air in. The cat will also adapt its posture to permit a larger air intake – it will be crouched with the elbows sticking out of the body, and extend its neck and head as much as possible.
Depending on what the issue causing the dyspnea is located, the cat may have difficulty breathing in – inspiratory dyspnea – or breathing out – expiratory dyspnea. A heavy breathing cat may also make sounds when trying to catch its breath. This type of noisy breathing is called stridor.
Depending on the cause of the dyspnea, it can develop rapidly, over the course of a few hours – acute dyspnea, or it can have a chronic evolution – over the course of weeks or even months, becoming increasingly severe.
Tachypnea means that the cat is breathing more rapidly than normal – more than 40 breaths per minute. The normal resting respiratory rate (RRR) is 20-30 breath per minute. You may hear some sounds it makes during this accelerated breathing. The agitation is present, as well as the modified posture, but the cat keeps its mouth closed.
Please note that tachypnea is not always a sign of respiratory distress. The main purpose of the increased breathing is to bring more oxygen to the lungs quickly. Tachypnea occurs physiologically after increased effort, such as running or jumping. If you notice your cat breathing rapidly after playtime, do not worry because it is not a sign of distress.
Tachypnea becomes a clinical sign when it extends over a longer period of time or when it is not correlated with physical effort. It is a sign of low oxygen levels in the body or low red blood cell count. Tachypnea may also appear in asthma cases or when the lungs are filled with fluid, or secondary to lung tumors.
The cat displays fast breathing, but the breaths are shallow. The cat opens its mouth to get as much air in as possible, but it is unable to take in enough air.
Cats do not cough often and they are distressed when they do. Coughing in cats looks similar to when they strive to vomit. They extend their head and neck, they open their mouth, and they contract their abdomen, making a sound. Coughing in cats does not sound like coughing in humans, so it might be overlooked. Because they make a lot of effort to cough, they might eliminate some saliva, which makes it even more similar to vomiting.
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The Sounds of Respiratory Distress
The cause of the cat’s breathing in dyspnea sounds differently according to the cause of the respiratory distress. These are the three main sounds it could make:
- Stertor – this sound occurs when breathing is impaired because of a partial obstruction located in the upper respiratory tract – from the nose to the back of the throat. It sounds similar to snoring or nasal congestion.
- Stridor – this is a harsh, high-pitched noise that occurs when there is a partial blockage in the cat’s larynx or windpipe. The high pitch comes from the air passing through the narrowed canal between the obstruction and windpipe.
- Wheezing – this is a continuous high-pitched sound that occurs every time the cat breathes out. It is caused by a partial or complete obstruction in the lower airways.
The Causes of Breathing Difficulties in Cats
There are many types of respiratory issues that can occur in cats, so making a diagnosis requires a full examination. These are the main causes of breathing difficulties, according to the part of the respiratory system when they are located:
Any obstruction of the nostrils results in breathing difficulties. If the obstruction is partial, then some air can still go in. But if the obstruction is complete, then the cat is unable to breathe at all. Unless the obstruction is eliminated, this is fatal.
The obstruction can be mechanical – a foreign object stuck in the cat’s nose or a growth in the nostril. Inflammation of the nostrils also leads to a partial obstruction because the nostril walls become enlarged, making the airway smaller.
- This can happen in the case of infections with bacteria or viruses, which cause rhinitis – the inflammation of the upper respiratory system.
- Tumors located in the nostril wall may also cause obstructions.
- Some cats might be born with small nostrils because of a genetic defect.
- If the cat bleeds through its nose, it is unable to breathe correctly (or at all). After the bleeding stops, the coagulated blood becomes a mechanical obstruction of the nostrils. Cats usually manage to dislodge the coagulated blood and eliminate it, but they will struggle to do so by amplified exhaling.
2. Throat and Trachea
As for the nose, any obstruction in the throat results in difficulty breathing. This commonly occurs when cats get food or foreign objects stuck in their throats like food. If this is the case, then the cat will struggle to breathe (dyspnea and panting). Depending on the size of the object/obstruction, the cat may only be able to breathe partially or not at all. This is a medical emergency and the cat must be taken to the vet clinic for an emergency procedure. Obstructions of the throat may also be caused by tumors or genetic defects.
3. Lungs and Lower Windpipe
The pathology of the lung is complex, so we are only going to list the most common causes of respiratory distress caused by lung issues:
- Pneumonia – this encompasses the inflammation and infection of the lungs (and heart, in advanced cases) caused by bacteria or viruses.
- Pulmonary Edema – this is enlarging of the lung(s) – when the lungs are filled with fluid, their structure changes and the respiratory process does not occur normally.
- Pulmonary haemorrhage – this is bleeding in the lungs, which occurs when blood leeks in the windpipe and passes inside the lung.
- Parasitic Diseases – some parasites locate inside the lungs during some of their development stages – flukes, worms. In heavy infestations, the damage to the lungs may be significant. A particular case is the heartworm, which has the adult worms located inside the heart. The adults may also travel from the heart inside the lungs.
- Heart Disease – When the heart is affected by diseases, the lungs can’t function correctly because these organs are linked. Depending on the pathology of the heart disease, the lungs can be affected more or less significantly.
- Tumors – When tumors develop inside the lungs, the healthy tissue is replaced by the tumor. Benign or malign, the presence of the tumor interferes with the respiratory process. Depending on the nature of the tumor and the size of the affected lung, the respiratory distress may be more or less significant.
Severe lung disease and severe systemic diseases may cause Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), also known as shock lung, which is a life-threatening condition
4. Bronchi and Bronchioles
These deep diseases of the lung affect the small tubes, down to the alveoli. Infections with bacteria or viruses can reach this level and cause respiratory distress. Tumors can grow at this level and replace healthy lung tissue with tumor tissue, thus interfering with the breathing process. Allergies and asthma also affect the lung at this level and require immediate treatment, as well as long-term protocol.
5. Pleural Space
The pleural space is filled with a lubricating liquid called pleural fluid. When other substances get inside the pleural space and replace this liquid, the lung does not glide inside the chest cavity anymore and breathing becomes painful. Moreover, if a significant portion of the pleural spaces is filled, then the lung is not able to extend to the full length, which interferes with respiration. Here are some of the cases of pleural issues:
- Pleural space is filled with air – Pneumothorax – This typically results secondary to trauma. If the chest wall and the parietal pleura are punctured, then air goes inside the pleural space and occupies too much space inside the chest cavity, so the lung does not have space to inflate. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate intervention.
- Pleural space is filled with blood – Hemothorax – Also secondary to trauma, the blood accumulated in the pleural space does not permit the lung to inflate. This is also a medical emergency and requires immediate intervention.
- Heart failure – Due to the inflammation in the heart, inflammatory fluid is gathered in the pleural space and does not permit the lungs to inflate properly. This typically happens in time and the fluid must be drained periodically.
- Tumors of the chest – these also affect the gliding of the lung during respiration. Depending on their size and location, they may affect the cat’s breathing more or less significantly.
When the lungs are inflated during respiration, they press on the diaphragm (the muscle between the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity), which means they press down the organs located in the abdomen. But if the abdomen is bloated or presses on the diaphragm, the lungs do not have sufficient space to inflate and the breathing process is incomplete.
There are many causes that can lead to this, but here are the most common:
- Enlarging of the liver – Of the abdominal organs, the liver can increase its size and press significantly on the diaphragm.
- The accumulation of gas inside the stomach or intestines – Bloating may not seem like a serious issue, but when it causes the organs in the abdominal cavity to increase in size enough to press on the diaphragm, it interferes with the cat’s breathing. Both the stomach and the intestines have elastic walls and they can accommodate large volumes inside. Please note that this is a medical emergency. The cat must be taken to the vet immediately so that the air can be taken out. This requires medical intervention.
- Tumors of the abdominal organs – Some of these tumors can increase significantly in size and affect the breathing process.
- Fluid in the abdomen – Ascites – Many diseases of the abdominal organs such as pancreatitis, kidney disease, or liver disease can cause the accumulation of fluid inside the abdominal cavity. This accumulation puts pressure on the diaphragm and does not permit the lung to inflate correctly, thus affecting respiration.
- Trauma – After major trauma, the abdominal organs may be affected, which may lead to bleeding inside the abdomen. In some cases, the diaphragm may tear or rupture causing abdominal breathing.
What Can You Do to Help Your Heavy Breathing Cat?
If you notice that your cat displays symptoms of dyspnea or tachypnea, the best thing you can do is call your vet. Even if your cat has minor breathing difficulties, it is important to find the cause because the condition becomes more advanced. You can first call your doctor, explain the situation and tell him or her about the symptoms you see – how fast the cat is breathing, its posture, the sounds it makes, if you notice blood or other fluids in or near its nose if you notice any wounds.
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Then, the doctor will provide you with instructions. If you can’t reach the vet, for any reason, it is best to take it to the clinic because diagnosing the issue and treating it as soon as possible is the best course of action. If your cat displays major respiratory distress, then call an ambulance because the condition could evolve quickly and become life-threatening
What Happens At the Vet?
When you take your cat to the vet, the doctor will first assess the situation. The only thing you can do is tell the doctor what you have noticed. This will serve as a starting point in the diagnostic process. Respiratory distress requires a full check-up, as well as additional investigative tests.
As part of the initial assessment, the vet will monitor the cat’s oxygen saturation and blood pressure. The vet will examine the cat’s nose and mouth, and then, each of the components of the respiratory system, one by one.
The doctor will also perform an ECG to assess heart function and order blood work – a complete blood count and biochemical profile, to start with. A urine analysis is also required. These tests could provide valuable information about infections, and/or heart disease.
A very useful test that the doctor may perform is a chest X-ray, which provides information about the structural integrity of the respiratory systems. Should the symptoms require it, the doctor may also perform an ultrasound to assess the abdominal organs and the diaphragm.
To diagnose obstruction across the respiratory system, the doctor may insert a small camera inside the airway. This is called a rhinoscopy – if the examined area is the cat’s nose, and a bronchoscopy – if the examination extends down to the bronchi and bronchioles. According to the diagnosis, the doctor may need to perform a surgical procedure to help the cat breathe properly.
In emergencies, the assessment is limited to determining the direct cause of the dyspnea and treating it. For instance, if the cat has a foreign object lodged inside the throat or trachea, the doctor may need to perform an emergency tracheotomy – making a small incision in the cat’s trachea posterior to the obstruction and inserting a tube so that the cat can breathe. This is followed by the surgical removal or the obstruction. In pneumothorax or hemothorax, the excess air/blood must be eliminated from the pleural space as soon as possible to permit the cat’s lung(s) to inflate.
Depending on the diagnosis, the cat may need further treatment – short term or long term – and even surgical procedures (to remove tumors or obstructions). The doctor will explain how to administer medication to the cat and will indicate when it should come back for checkups.
A heavy breathing cat should never be ignored because in many cases, this is a medical emergency. Make sure you have your vet’s contacts available, should you need to get in touch with him or her. Has your cat ever experienced respiratory distress? What did you do? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.
Hi, I’m Jenny Dean, creator of Floppycats! Ever since my Aunt got the first Ragdoll cat in our family, I have loved the breed. Inspired by my childhood Ragdoll cat, Rags, I created Floppycats to connect, share and inspire other Ragdoll cat lovers around the world,