Taking notice of your cat’s breathing is an important part of monitoring their health. Subtle changes can sometimes indicate an underlying issue. If your feline friend seems to be breathing heavily or rapidly when resting, it should not be considered normal. Read on to understand why cats breathe heavily at rest, what it could signal, and how you can help your pet breathe easy again.
What Does Heavy Breathing Look Like?
To assess if your cat has problematic heavy breathing, you first need to know what normal resting respiration looks like. The average breathing rate for a resting adult cat is around 20 to 30 breaths per minute. This involves gentle and relatively shallow inhaling and exhaling motions.
Heavy or labored breathing will appear slower and deeper. You’ll notice more effort going into each breath. The cat’s chest and abdomen will move in and out more dramatically. Their breathing might seem strained or wheezy.
Take note of any odd breathing sounds like coughing, gurgling, or rasping. Also observe if breathing seems rapid or irregular instead of a steady rhythm. Time how many breaths they take in 15 seconds – multiply this number by 4 to get the breaths per minute.
Compare active versus resting respiration too. After exercise or activity, it’s normal for cats to breathe heavier for a short period as they catch their breath. But resting breathing should return to that relaxed 20-30 breaths per minute baseline.
What Are Some Causes of Heavy Breathing in Cats?
There are many possible medical explanations for feline heavy breathing. Here are some top reasons your cat might display labored breathing while at rest:
Respiratory infections are a common cause of breathing issues in cats. The most likely culprits are feline herpesvirus or mycoplasma bacteria. Symptoms involve nasal discharge, sneezing, coughing, fever, eye inflammation, and wheezing or raspy breathing noises. These are highly contagious between cats.
Feline heart disease can manifest in labored breathing. For example, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a thickening of the heart muscle that forces the heart to work harder to pump blood. This results in louder breathing sounds as the cat struggles to get enough air. Heart failure can cause fluid buildup in lungs that also impairs breathing.
If your cat is dealing with an injury, arthritis, or other source of pain, heavy breathing can arise when the area is aggravated. Their body tenses up to brace against the pain or avoid using tender areas, which in turn restricts breathing mechanics. Managing the pain is key to resolving any associated respiratory distress.
A high fever ramps up a cat’s metabolism, driving their respiratory rate up. As their body works hard to fight an infection or illness, their breathing becomes more intense. Once the fever comes down, breathing should normalize. Treating the underlying cause of the fever is vital.
With anemia, the blood lacks enough red blood cells to transport sufficient oxygen. Your cat may exhibit pale gums, lethargy, rapid heart rate, and labored breathing as their body struggles to oxygenate tissues and organs. There are many potential causes including parasites, infections, cancers or trauma.
Some cats suffer from feline asthma, which causes airway inflammation and narrowing. Irritants like dust, smoke, and allergens can trigger asthma attacks featuring coughing, wheezing, and breathing trouble. Obesity and stress are risk factors. Long term control with inhalers is often necessary.
Allergic reactions to things like pollen, foods, dust mites, mold and chemicals can create respiratory distress. Inflammation and irritation of the airways leads to coughing, sneezing fits, nasal discharge and wheezy breathing. Removing the allergen source and medication can provide relief.
Carrying excess weight puts more pressure on the chest cavity and lungs. Obese cats often breathe heavily to compensate for decreased lung expansion and oxygen. Losing weight under veterinary guidance can hugely benefit respiratory function.
Congestive Heart Failure
Fluid accumulation in or around the lungs is a hallmark of congestive heart failure in cats. The heavy congestion impairs breathing capacity. Coughing, wheezing, lethargy and poor appetite may also be present. Diuretics and other medications can remove excess fluid.
Any blockage of the airways – from inhaled foreign material to masses or swelling – can hamper breathing. Cats may choke, gag, wheeze, cough, breathe through their mouth and show signs of respiratory distress. Remove any known obstruction. Veterinary evaluation is extremely important.
Inflammation in the lungs caused by infections, allergens, toxins or injury all can lead to pneumonia. Cats often exhibit fast, shallow breathing, fever, lethargy, and a worsening cough with pneumonia. It can rapidly become life threatening, so prompt treatment is key.
What to Do If Your Resting Cat Has Heavy Breathing
Dealing with a cat that displays heavy breathing while at rest can be worrying. Here are some tips on responding and caring for your pet if you observe labored respiration:
Schedule a veterinary appointment as soon as possible for any cat with unexplained breathing issues. The vet will do a full physical exam, recommend any diagnostic tests, and prescribe appropriate treatment to resolve the underlying cause. Timely medical care is crucial.
If their breathing trouble seems severe, get emergency veterinary care right away. Heavy, uncontrolled breathing can quickly lead to oxygen deprivation. Immediate assistance maximizes chances for successful treatment.
Make the cat as comfortable as possible while waiting for the vet visit. Allow them rest and restrict activity. Maintain a peaceful, stress-free environment. You can place the cat near an open window for fresh airflow.
Use a humidifier to help ease breathing. Dry air can irritate airways and make breathing more difficult. Boosting humidity levels in the room makes breathing a little easier on the cat.
Elevate food and water bowls so eating and drinking require less effort. Gravity aids swallowing. Large flat bowls work better than narrow, deep bowls too.
Monitor resting breathing rate at home prior to the vet visit. Count the up-and-down chest movements for 15 seconds while relaxed, then multiply by 4 to get breaths per minute. Track any changes.
Weigh your cat to see if obesity could be impacting breathing. Overweight cats should start supervised weight loss prior to veterinary appointment to reduce respiratory strain.
Remove any irritants or allergens from the home environment if asthma or allergies are a suspected trigger. Keep your cat away from dust, cigarette smoke, sprays, chemicals and other potential respiratory irritants.
Address collars, harnesses or clothing that could be constricting your cat’s breathing. Anything pressing on the neck and chest area should be loosened or removed.
Try to keep your cat calm leading up to the vet visit. Anxiety and stress can worsen breathing troubles. Use calming pheromone sprays/diffusers and minimize handling the cat.
Getting prompt veterinary attention for unexplained heavy breathing is vital to determine the cause and treat your cat appropriately before their condition worsens. Home care focused on comfort and stress reduction can provide temporary relief.
Diagnostic Tests Vets Use to Pinpoint Heavy Breathing Causes
To identify the underlying reason behind your cat’s labored breathing, vets have a variety of diagnostic tools at their disposal:
- Physical exam – The vet will listen to the cat’s chest with a stethoscope for abnormal sounds indicating infections, asthma, heart failure. They’ll check color of gums and membranes, take temperature, examine nose and throat, palpate the abdomen, and assess overall condition.
- Bloodwork – Blood tests can reveal if the cat has anemia, infection, inflammation, kidney issues, cancer or other systemic conditions contributing to breathing troubles.
- Chest radiographs (x-rays) – Images of the chest provide views of the heart, lungs, and airways. This helps identify pneumonia, fluid in lungs, heart enlargement, masses, foreign objects, or lung collapse.
- Rhinoscopy – A small endoscope inserted in the nose lets vets inspect the nasal passages and upper airways for obstructions, masses, fungal infections, and more.
- Cardiac ultrasound – Using sound waves, cardiac ultrasounds check heart function and anatomy to diagnose cardiomyopathies, valve issues, clots, or fluid around the heart.
- CT scan – CT imaging produces detailed 3D views of soft tissues not visible on x-rays. Useful for assessing tumors, airway obstructions, masses, lung and chest abnormalities.
- Bronchoscopy – Scoping the lower airways reveals issues like inflammation, secretions, masses, collapse. Samples can be taken for biopsies.
- Cytology – Microscopic analysis of cell samples from nasal discharge, lesions, masses, or fluid buildup can identify infection types or cancerous cells.
- FeLV/FIV tests – Feline leukemia and immunodeficiency virus testing rules out these immunosuppressing feline retroviruses as potential causes of respiratory infection.
- Fungal culture – Fungal cultures determine if ringworm, histoplasmosis, blastomycosis or other fungal infections are involved.
- Biopsy – Tissue samples of suspicious masses or lesions can be analyzed to differentiate between benign growths, cancerous tumors, and granulomas.
5 Tips for Helping an Overweight Cat With Breathing Issues
If excessive weight is hampering your cat’s breathing, here are some safe strategies to help them slim down:
- Consult your vet for a customized weight loss plan. Cats should lose weight gradually – no more than 1-2% of body weight per week. Rapid loss risks liver disease.
- Switch to a vet-recommended prescription low-calorie diet. This allows safe weight loss with adequate nutrition. Feed proper portion sizes.
- Increase exercise through more interactive playtime. Use wand toys to get your cat moving and burning calories. But limit exertion in severely overweight cats.
- Eliminate free-feeding. Feed set meals on a schedule instead of having food available at all times. Portion control is key.
- Rule out medical conditions that cause weight gain. Have your vet run tests to check for hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance, and medication side effects.
Losing excess weight under veterinary supervision can profoundly improve respiratory function and quality of life for overweight cats. Take a slow, steady approach – 1-2 pounds monthly. With patience, your cat can breathe easy again.
At-Home Methods to Make a Cat With Asthma More Comfortable
Feline asthma can really impact a cat’s quality of life. The good news is there are some simple at-home steps you can take to help minimize symptoms and breathing issues:
- Give prescribed inhalers and medications consistently to control inflammation. Long term control is key, even if your cat seems fine.
- Keep the cat indoors to limit exposure to outdoor allergens and irritants. Monitor indoor air quality too.
- Use HEPA air filters and vacuums to reduce dust, dander and other particles triggering asthma attacks.
- Clean litter boxes frequently, use low-dust litter, and place them in well-ventilated areas. Ammonia odor can be problematic.
- Avoid using sprays, scented candles, air fresheners or cleaning products that give off fumes.
- Brush your cat frequently to remove loose hair and dander they might inhale.
- Maintain a healthy weight – extra body fat puts more pressure on lungs.
- Keep your cat hydrated to help thin mucus secretions. Consider adding broths or low-sodium chicken/veggie stock to their water.
- Use humidifiers or create steamy bathrooms to aid breathing during asthma flare ups.
- Keep your cat calm and their stress low. Anxiety can worsen asthma symptoms. Try calming pheromones.
Asthma can be managed with attentive care, medication, and lifestyle adjustments to minimize attacks. Partner closely with your vet to control your cat’s condition.
When to Take a Cat With Breathing Issues to the ER Vet
Feline breathing troubles can escalate quickly. Here are signs your cat needs emergency veterinary treatment:
- Breathing rate exceeds 40 breaths per minute
- Labored breathing with chest heaving in and out
- Pale or blue-tinged gums, tongue, ears
- Unresponsive to surroundings, extremely lethargic
- Making wheezing, gasping, or gurgling sounds
- Nostrils flaring open wide with each breath
- Constant coughing, gagging, open mouth breathing
- Sudden onset of severe respiratory distress
- Fainted or collapsed
- Abnormal crying or shrieking
If your cat is struggling severely for air, losing consciousness, or has bluish skin/gums – seek emergency vet attention immediately. These are signs of oxygen deprivation which can damage organs and be fatal.
Other scenarios that warrant emergency vet care include choking incidents, known toxin exposures, acute allergic reactions, trauma, or a suspected foreign body obstruction in the airways.
Don’t delay. Even if regular vet hours resume soon, get life-threatening breathing issues treated urgently for the best chance of saving your cat.
Questions to Ask Your Vet About Your Cat’s Breathing Issues
If your cat has breathing troubles, preparing questions ahead of your veterinary appointment helps ensure you get the information you need. Here are some important things to ask your vet:
- What diagnostic tests do you recommend and what will they tell us?
- Based on initial exam, what are the most likely causes?
- Is my cat stable enough to do tests as outpatient or does he need to be hospitalized?
- How serious is this breathing problem on a scale of 1-10?
- Do you think this is an acute or chronic condition?
- What treatment options do you recommend?
- What is involved in treating the underlying cause?
- What can I do at home to help my cat breathe easier?
- Should I limit activity? Make any dietary changes?
- How often should the breathing rate be monitored? What is too high?
- Are there any preventative steps I can take to avoid future breathing issues?
- How will we know if the treatment is working? What’s our benchmark?
- What is the prognosis with treatment? What if we did no treatment?
Don’t be shy about asking questions. The more information you have about your cat’s condition, treatment, and prognosis, the better equipped you’ll be to provide supportive care at home and optimize their outcome.
When Breathing Troubles Resolve But Could Return
For some conditions, veterinary treatment can successfully resolve acute breathing difficulties. But you do need to remain vigilant for any recurrence of symptoms or relapse, which indicates ongoing management is required.
Asthma: With asthmatic cats, flare ups are managed with medication but the underlying airway inflammation remains. Work closely with your vet to tailor an effective maintenance inhaler protocol and minimize asthma triggers. Seek prompt treatment for any attacks.
Allergies: Allergies often require managing exposure to allergens and medications to control symptoms. Cats may need antihistamines, immune modulating drugs, or desensitization therapy. Vigilance for flare ups is key during allergy seasons.
Respiratory infections: Antibiotics or antivirals usually knock out acute infections. But some viral ones like feline herpes can resurge during times of stress. Watch for future breathing episodes or nasal discharge signaling recurrence.
Heart conditions: Medications can improve heart function but chronic degenerative heart disease requires close monitoring for progression. Repeat vet visits are crucial to monitor for fluid buildup in lungs or worsening heart failure.
Staying alert to breathing trouble signs lets you quickly address setbacks. Follow all recheck appointment and medication instructions. With astute monitoring, recurrent problems can be caught early.
Breathing Emergency Kit Essentials for Cat Owners
Being prepared for feline breathing emergencies can greatly improve outcomes. Keep a kit ready with these must-have items:
- Pet first aid book – Equip yourself with knowledge of cat CPR techniques, choking procedures, emergency care instructions.
- Veterinary clinic numbers – Program your vet, emergency clinic, animal ER, and poison control contacts into your phone.
- Towels – Useful for restraint or transporting a distressed cat.
- Blankets – To provide warmth or cushioning.
- Non-adhesive gauze – To wrap or muzzle an anxious cat who might bite. Avoid using tape.
- Saline eye wash – To flush ocular irritants or injuries.
- Activated charcoal – For absorbing toxins ingested. Only use if instructed by poison control or vet.
- Elizabethan collar – Prevents licking or chewing at bandages or wounds.
- Pet travel carrier – For safe transport of ill or injured cats. Top-loading hard carriers work best.
- Tuna juice or meat baby food – Handy high-calorie supplement if your cat is refusing food.
- Pheromone spray or diffuser – Help relieve cat stress during emergencies.
Being proactive and prepared allows you to respond quickly if your cat experiences respiratory distress. Consult your vet to customize your emergency kit supplies list.
Wrap Up: Monitor Your Cat’s Breathing as a Vital Health Barometer
A cat’s breathing reflects their well-being. Unexplained heavy or rapid respiration at rest is not normal and requires veterinary investigation. With prompt diagnosis and treatment guided by your vet, most underlying causes can be successfully managed. Avoid dismissing subtle breathing changes – early action makes all the difference.
Going forward, periodically take 15 seconds to observe your cat’s resting respiratory rate and rhythm. Tune your ear into any worrisome sounds. Watch for other signs of illness accompanying breathing