5 Reasons for Heavy Breathing in Cats and What to Do

Discover why your cat is breathing heavily, how to tell what's going on, and when to go to the vet.

Updated March 28, 2023
Woman holding her cat

Cats who have been running and playing hard might take a moment to catch their breath afterward. However, if your cat is breathing heavily while resting, it can be a sign of several common problems, from anxiety to airway disease. Don't stress just yet. This is probably normal behavior. Understanding some of the reasons for labored breathing in cats can help you figure out if the situation is serious. However, if your cat is having difficulty breathing, this is an emergency, and you should take your cat to your veterinarian right away.

Why Is My Cat Breathing Heavily?

Petting sat looking calico cat

Heavy breathing in cats often results from these five causes. Some of these may not appear to be as serious as others, but respiratory issues in cats can progress very quickly, so if you think that your cat may be breathing heavily, it is important to have them evaluated by your veterinarian right away.

1. Airway Diseases

Cats can develop heavy breathing with airways diseases. These impair your cat's ability to get oxygen into the bloodstream. As a result, your cat will breathe more rapidly and with more effort to try to compensate. Airway diseases include:

  • Feline asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary edema

One of the most common causes of heavy breathing in cats is pulmonary edema, a fluid buildup within the lungs. This is often caused by heart failure but can also happen with electrocution, near-drowning, choking, cancer, or other systemic illnesses.

2. Exercise or Stress

For a few cats, you can see labored breathing with exercise or stress. If your cat is panting after running around outside on a hot day or playing with a favorite toy, this may be caused by normal exertion. Other cats will pant or breathe rapidly when they have to ride in the car. In these scenarios, the heavy breathing should resolve within one to two minutes. If it does not, it's imperative to see your vet.

3. Pleural Effusion

Cats can also develop fluid buildup in the chest cavity that is localized outside the lungs, in an area named the pleural space. When fluid accumulates in the pleural space, referred to as pleural effusion, the lungs cannot inflate as much as they should under normal conditions. Your cat will develop shortness of breath and labored breathing as more fluid fills this space. Causes of pleural effusion include:

  • Heart failure
  • Cancer
  • Chylothorax - a buildup of fatty fluid
  • Pyothorax - a very severe chest infection
  • Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)

4. Upper Airway Problems

Sometimes, cats will hold their mouths part-way open when they breathe. This can be an indication that your cat is congested in their nose or sinuses. You may also hear your cat breathe more loudly than normal. Many cats will develop an upper respiratory tract infection at some point in their lives. Symptoms of an upper respiratory tract infection can include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Runny eyes
  • Audible nasal congestion

Some cats become so congested that they are unable to breathe through their noses. When this happens, your cat may hold their mouth partway open to breathe. This is the only time that home care for heavy breathing in a cat may be appropriate, but only pursue this home treatment if you know this is the cause of your cat's breathing problems.

You can use a cotton ball and warm water to clean any discharge off of your cat's nose. Place your cat in a humid environment, such as a bathroom, while running hot water or a humidifier. If your cat is not eating, seems lethargic, or has excessive congestion, you will need to see a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and possible medication.

Fast Fact

While it is more rare than upper airway infections, some cats can have a physical obstruction of their airway, like a polyp, a foreign body, or a tumor, that will cause heavy breathing.

5. Trauma

For cats that have sustained trauma, like falling from a high place, being hit by a car, or being attacked by another animal, heavy breathing is a serious symptom. Trauma can cause bleeding in the lungs, a punctured or collapsed lung, a hernia that places pressure on the lungs, or other internal bleeding. If your cat was injured and they're breathing heavily afterward, take them to the veterinarian immediately.

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Breathing Heavily

Normally, a cat should always breathe with small movements of their chest. If your cat is breathing as usual, you shouldn't see their chest moving really fast or any hitch in their breathing. However, if your cat's sides are moving a lot or you see any increased abdominal or belly movements with their breathing, this can indicate labored breathing. The most common signs of heavy breathing in cats include:

  1. Chest moving deeply while breathing
  2. Stomach contracting while breathing
  3. Breathing with an open mouth
  4. Very fast breathing
  5. Noisy breathing
  6. Shallow breaths
  7. Frothing at the mouth
  8. Panting
  9. Wheezing
  10. Blue or purple-tinged gums
Need to Know

Unlike dogs, cats generally don't pant very often, so open-mouth breathing is usually a sign your cat is in respiratory distress.

How Are Cat Breathing Problems Diagnosed?

Your veterinarian may be able to diagnose some of these medical conditions on a basic physical exam. For others, a chest X-ray will be needed. If your cat has severe labored breathing, it may not even be safe for your veterinarian to take a chest X-ray right away. They may need to stabilize your cat before proceeding with diagnostics.

  • Vets may drain a sample of fluid from the chest. This can sometimes help diagnose the problem, but can also make your cat feel better.
  • Your vet may recommend an echocardiogram is they suspect heart failure. This is an ultrasound of the heart and can tell a lot more about the structure of the heart, compared to an X-ray.
  • An X-ray can diagnose cat asthma, but in serious cases, referral to a specialist may be needed.
  • If your veterinarian suspects an airway obstruction or a polyp in your cat's airway, your cat may need to be sedated for an oral exam, skull or neck X-rays, or an exam of the ears.
Veterinarian inspecting black cat

What Treatment Is Available for My Cat's Labored Breathing?

The exact treatment for labored breathing in cats will depend on the underlying cause. Often, some treatment will have to be started to ease the breathing before an exact diagnosis can be made.

  • Pulmonary edema is treated with oxygen and a diuretic medication such as furosemide (Lasix). Pleural effusion is usually drained to help re-inflate the lungs.
  • Cats with asthma may need to take a steroid medication or learn to tolerate a special cat inhaler.
  • If your cat has an upper respiratory tract infection, they may only need some antibiotics and nursing care for a short period.
  • Unfortunately, if your cat is diagnosed with cancer or FIP, the treatment options may be limited and are aimed more at keeping your cat comfortable.
Need to Know

Remember that if you think that your cat has labored breathing, this is a medical emergency. Consult your veterinarian immediately.

Identify Cat Breathing Difficulty Early for the Best Outcome

Cats are known for hiding illnesses as a survival instinct. If your cat suddenly exhibits abnormal breathing, there's a good chance something has been brewing for a while. Instead of waiting, it is always safest to have your pet evaluated at the first sign of heavy breathing to give them the best possible outcome. With close attention to your feline friend, you can find them the help they need and keep them at your side for years to come.

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5 Reasons for Heavy Breathing in Cats and What to Do