Fast breathing is a very concerning symptom in cats. Stress and intense exercise commonly cause fast breathing, but if these are not the cause or the breathing isn’t returning to normal, a serious condition may be present.
Most cats will only breathe with their mouth open if they are very stressed or have a serious problem. Normal breathing movements in cats are very subtle and silent. Any breathing changes lasting more than a few minutes should be discussed with a vet, and this is urgent if the breathing is getting worse or if it is noisy or laboured.
Recording breaths per minute at rest is a useful way to monitor chronic conditions, especially those affecting the heart and lungs.
What to do
What to do if my cat is breathing fast
Try to stay calm and remove anything that may cause stress for your cat. If your cat has been showing other signs of not being well it is advisable to contact a vet. This is urgent if the breathing is getting worse.
Common causes of fast breathing in cats
Stress and fear
Exercise, especially in warm weather
Airway infections such as cat flu or pneumonia
Diabetic Ketoacidosis, a serious complication of diabetes
Heart disease or other causes of pulmonary oedema
Infection or fluid around the lungs, called pleural effusion
Foreign bodies in the airways
Pulmonary trauma or diaphragmatic hernial, can happen due to road traffic accidents, falls or other trauma)
Lungworm or other parasites in the respiratory tract
Severe tummy swelling
When to worry
When to worry about fast breathing
The normal breathing rate for cats is around 20-30 breaths per minute at rest. This can increase a lot with exercise or stress but should return to normal in minutes.
Take your cat to an emergency vet straight away if:
- Gums or tongue look blue, purple or pale
- You can see something obstructing the airway that cannot be safely removed
- Your cat is breathing with the mouth open, especially if the neck is outstretched and the front limbs are spread apart
- Breathing is noisy, especially if wheezing is present
- The abdomen is moving noticeably when they breathe
- Your cat is not acting normal
Prevention tips to avoid fast breathing in cats
Neutering may reduce roaming and help prevent accidents and injuries.
Vaccinations will limit the risk of some infections that cause airway disease.
Regular monitoring and treatment may prevent some complications from chronic heart and lung disease.
Lungworm is becoming more common all over the UK. It is more common in dogs, but cats can also be affected. Other parasites can be contracted during hunting and roaming. Regular deworming, flea and mite control with good quality products can prevent problems.
Diagnosis of fast breathing in cats
If your cat’s breathing rate is increased, your vet will:
- examine your cat
- listen to their chest
- check their temperature
- recommend blood tests
- discuss x-rays and scans
Home remedies for fast breathing in cats
There are no home treatments for fast breathing in cats.
If your cat has started breathing fast suddenly and is not recovering quickly, please take your cat to see a vet immediately.
Take their respiratory rate while they are asleep. This means counting how many breaths they take in one minute.
If their breathing isn’t settling down and they are showing other signs of being unwell, please contact a vet as soon as possible.
If your cat has an underlying condition, please give medications as advised by your vet.
Report any changes in their condition back to your vet as soon as possible.
Vet treatment for fast breathing in cats
By the time breathing changes become obvious, cats are usually oxygen deprived and need to have oxygen administered to them. This is usually done by placing them in a special box with high levels of oxygen flowing through it.
If there is fluid around the lungs, this will need to be drained. This procedure is called thoracocentesis.
If the airway is collapsed or there is an obstruction that cannot be immediately removed, a tube may need to be inserted directly into the windpipe, via tracheostomy.
Asthma is treated with bronchodilators and steroids, either by nebulisation (a small machine used to give medication as a mist) or injection.
Infections are usually treated with antibiotics.
Fever is usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Pain is treated with analgesic medications such as opioids.
Trauma to the chest or abdomen may require emergency surgery.
Pulmonary oedema, fluid in the lungs, is treated with diuretics.
Cats at higher risk for breathing problems
Siamese and Oriental cats are at higher risk for asthma, mediastinal lymphoma (a type of cancer) and chylothorax (a type of fluid build-up in the chest)
Maine Coons and Ragdolls are at higher risk for some types of heart disease
Cats that roam and fight are at higher risk for trauma and infection
Other causes of fast breathing
Heat stroke is rare in cats but possible in extreme conditions, such as in cars
Paracetamol is very toxic to cats and disrupts their red blood cells, causing breathing problems
Urinary tract rupture