Why is my Cat Breathing Heavy & What Can I Do

While cats don't pant often, when it happens it could be caused by something as simple as them playing or running. Unfortunately in other situations, it could be caused by an underlying health condition. In today's post, our Columbia vets talk about heavy breathing in cats and what to do when it happens.

Why is my cat panting?

If your cat is breathing normally they will be taking around 10 - 30 breaths each minute. These breaths are important as they help to oxygenate the blood as it flows through the lungs. Oxygenated blood then circulates through your cat's body allowing your kitty's vital organs to do a range of essential jobs. Rapid breathing - tachypnea - in cats is often irregular and shallow and can be an indication that insufficient oxygen is making its way into the lungs. Normal breaths should create a small rise and fall of the chest. 

Does my cat need emergency veterinary care?

If your cat is suddenly breathing very fast it could indicate that they are in medical distress. Since proper oxygenation of the blood is essential to your cat's health, rapid breathing at rest is a symptom that should never be ignored.

If your cat’s sides are moving in and out dramatically, or if breathing is accompanied by a whistling sound or gasps contact your vet right away or call your nearest after-hours animal emergency hospital.

What are the symptoms of a heavy breathing cat?

Heavy breathing or dyspnea in cats when they are at rest is generally a sign of an underlying illness and will often occur along with other symptoms. Depending on the cause of your cat's fast breathing you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Sides, chest and stomach moving in and out rapidly
  • Open mouth breathing or panting
  • Lowered head with extension of neck and body forward
  • Coughing
  • Gagging
  • Noisy breathing such as whistling, wheezing, or groaning with each breath.
  • Lack of energy, lethargy
  • Blue color to the gums
  • Reluctance to move, jump or play
  • Extended periods of sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Breathing difficulties are a very serious health concern. If your cat is showing any of the symptoms above seek urgent veterinary care for your kitty.

Why is my cat panting or breathing heavy?

Our Columbia vets often hear from concerned pet parents wondering, "Why is my cat breathing heavy?". Below are just a few of the reasons why your cat may be panting or breathing heavily.


  • Common signs of asthma in cats include heavy breathing with mouth open, panting, wheezing, and coughing, and increased respiratory rate.  While asthma in cats may not be cured, it can be successfully managed with corticosteroids or bronchodilators.


  • Heartworm in cats can cause breathing difficulties. Treatment for heartworm includes supportive care with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and oxygen therapy in more serious cases. Heartworm disease is extremely serious and can be fatal, which is why our vets recommend keeping your cat on a monthly heartworm preventative medication.

Hydrothorax & Congestive Heart Failure

  • Hydrothorax is a condition characterized by the accumulation of fluid in and around the lungs which can cause deep, rapid breathing, coughing, and panting. Treatment may include draining the fluid, as well as medications to dilate blood vessels, get rid of excess fluid, and make the heart contract more forcefully.

Respiratory Infections

  • If your feline friend has developed a respiratory infection it may be difficult for them to breathe normally. Respiratory infections can lead to heavy breathing or panting in cats. These infections typically begin as viral infections, but often develop into secondary bacterial infections. Antibiotics may be required to treat your cat's condition so that they can breathe easier. Humidifiers and steam can help loosen mucus and make nasal breathing easier as your cat recovers.

Other Concerns That May Lead to Heavy Breathing Cats

As well as the conditions listed above there are other conditions that can cause cats to breathe rapidly, including:

  • Trauma or injury
  • Tumors in chest, lungs or throat
  • Anemia
  • Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid)
  • Pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs)
  • Pneumonia
  • Allergies
  • Airway obstruction (something stuck in the throat)
  • Pain, stress or shock

What are the treatment options for cat panting?

In order to provide your cat with effective treatment it will be necessary for your vet to determine the underlying cause of your kitty's fast breathing. This may require a number of diagnostic tests such as bloodwork, urinalysis and/or diagnostic imaging.

Your cat's treatment will be focused on the underlying cause of the breathing issues. Depending on the cause of your kitty's rapid breathing treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Oxygen
  • Antihistamines
  • Steroids
  • Surgery to remove tumors
  • Procedures to drain fluid from the chest
  • Acupuncture

When you have any concerns related to your cat's ability to breathe you should contact your vet immediately. After all, it is always better to be proactive when there is a health concern.

If your cat has a medical issue affecting their breathing it will be best if it is managed sooner rather than later. Do not wait until your kitty's symptoms become severe. Early treatment could save you money in the long run and may help to protect your cat's health.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your cat experiencing breathing difficulties? Contact our Columbia vets right away to book an urgent examination for your feline family member.