What should I do if my cat has breathing problems?

Breathing difficulties can affect cats of any breed or age, and the problem can quickly become life-threatening. If your cat is displaying signs of breathing difficulties you should take them to your local vet, or out of hours your nearest Vets Now, as soon as possible.

Overview
Symptoms
Image of a cat for Vets Now article heavy breathing cat problems and cat struggling to breathe
Breathing problems can affect cats of any age or breed
Treatment

How do I tell if my cat has breathing problems?

A cat’s respiratory system has many parts including the nose, throat (pharynx and larynx), windpipe, and lungs.

Diseases in any part of this system, or the respiratory centre in the brain, can lead to cat breathing problems.

Cats are great at hiding signs of illness which makes it difficult to determine whether your cat is breathing normally. A normal cat takes between 20 to 30 breaths per minute and their breathing should never be laboured or a struggle.

Why is my cat struggling to breathe?

Difficult or laboured breathing in cats, also known as dyspnea, can be a sign of a number of issues, including infection, trauma and bleeding. Other reasons why a cat may be struggling to breathe include foreign objects, heart failure, asthma and anaemia. Allergies, pain, fever and medication may also be to blame. Other causes may be tumours or diseases that make the belly enlarged or bloated (such as enlarged liver or fluid in the belly).

Why is my cat breathing fast?

Rapid breathing in cats, also known as tachypnea, may be a sign of low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia), low red blood cell level (anaemia), or asthma. A cat breathing fast may also be caused by fluid in the lungs due to heart failure or fluid in the chest surrounding the lungs. Bleeding into the lungs or tumours could also the reason for a heavy breathing cat.

How are cat breathing problems diagnosed?

Your vet will ask you about your cat’s health, an onset of signs, and possible incidents that might have preceded this condition.  During the examination, your vet will carefully observe how your cat breathes and will listen to his chest for evidence of a heart murmur or fluid in the lungs. Your cat’s gum colour will be evaluated, as this can indicate whether oxygen is being delivered to the organs effectively, or if there is a low red blood cell count (anaemia).  If your cat is struggling to breathe, the vet or nurse may take your cat straight out to the back area to enable them to give your cat oxygen to help him breathe and settle down before doing any more examinations or tests.

Most cases will require blood tests to check for underlying disease conditions and X-rays or ultrasound to examine the lungs and heart.

What is the treatment for cat breathing problems?

Treatment will depend on the diagnosis your vet makes for your cat’s breathing problems. Most breathing problems require admittance into the hospital until your cat’s breathing has significantly improved.