If your cat is breathing fast, it’s easy to panic - what could be causing this, and is it an emergency? Our San Diego vets describe what’s considered rapid breathing, explain symptoms and potential causes, and provide insight on when to call a vet.
Why is my cat breathing fast?
Rapid breathing in cats, also known as tachypnea, can be a cause for concern. To determine if your cat's breathing is within a healthy range, it's helpful to know the normal respiratory rate for a cat, which is typically between 20 to 30 breaths per minute.
To assess your cat's resting respiratory rate, observe the number of breaths they take while at rest. Each breath includes both the inhaling phase (when the chest rises) and the exhaling phase (when the chest falls). It's important to ensure that your cat is not purring while you count their breathing rate. Typically, the respiratory rate during sleep is slightly lower than the resting rate.
To measure the rate, you can use your phone or a watch to time how many breaths occur within a 30-second period. Then, multiply the number of breaths you counted by two to determine the number of breaths your cat takes in one minute.
Causes of Fast Breathing in Cats
Fast breathing in cats may indicate a number of injuries or illnesses and should be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible. Some potential causes include:
- Emotional distress
- Heart disease or heart failure
- Pain, stress or shock
- Tumors in throat or chest
- Respiratory infection
- Low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia)
- Low levels of red blood cells (anemia)
- Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid)
- Bleeding into lungs
- Foreign objects lodged in windpipe or other airway obstruction
- Trauma, exposure to toxins, or injury
- Pleural effusion (abnormal buildup of fluid in the chest cavity)
Signs of Fast Breathing in Cats
If your cat is breathing rapidly, you may notice several signs, including:
- Difficulty breathing
- Belly and chest are both moving with each breath
- Loud breathing
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Panting or breathing with open mouth (like a dog)
- Nostrils flaring
- Rapidly rising and falling stomach or chest
- Blue-colored gums
If you notice that your cat is breathing faster than usual, it's important to identify and address any potential factors that may be contributing to this condition. For instance, if your cat has been exposed to hot weather or is experiencing emotional distress or anxiety, it's recommended to move them to a cooler and quieter environment immediately. Make sure that your cat has access to an ample supply of fresh water.
The rate of breathing can serve as an indicator of your cat's overall health. If you observe that your cat is consistently breathing rapidly while sleeping (more than 30 breaths per minute), it could be an early sign of heart failure and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. However, lower breathing rates may not be a cause for concern as long as your cat is behaving normally.
It's worth noting that for certain cats, breathing rates lower than 30 breaths per minute may be considered increased and abnormal, and the ideal breathing rate for your cat should be assessed on an individual basis by a vet.
By staying vigilant and observant, you can help minimize the severity of your pet's illness, reduce the likelihood of overnight hospital stays, and potentially lower the costs associated with treating heart failure.
What to Do If Your Cat is Breathing Fast
If you find that your cat’s breathing is consistently fast after keeping an eye on it for a couple of hours, contact our veterinarian as soon as possible, so they can recommend the next steps to take. Your cat may simply need an adjustment in medications.
If you see other symptoms along with faster sleeping breathing rate or symptoms have become worse, this may be a medical emergency. In this case, your vet may assess your cat’s medical situation during your call and will likely tell you to bring the cat to AnimERge or another hospital.
Diagnosis of Fast Breathing in Cats
Your vet will assess the stage and severity of your cat’s rapid breathing, listen to their chest for evidence of a heart murmur, fluid in the lungs or other cause, and check the color of your cat’s gums to identify whether the organs are receiving oxygen as they should.
Your kitty will also be stabilized provided with a steady supply of oxygen. Blood tests will be performed to check for underlying illnesses or diseases, then x-rays and/or ultrasounds will be done to examine the heart and lungs. At our hospital, we use in-house diagnostic tools to provide the most accurate diagnosis of medical conditions and customize treatment plants to the needs of your pet.
Treatment of Fast Breathing in Cats
Along with the steady supply of oxygen, an IV catheter may be placed so emergency drugs and fluids can be administered intravenously.
Of course, treatment will depend on the issues your cat is experiencing. For pleural effusion, fluid will be removed from the chest and analyzed. An echocardiogram and x-rays may be taken of the heart if heart disease is a concern. These can reveal the size of the heart and how it’s functioning.
If your cat is in respiratory distress, remain as calm as possible. If your cat finds traveling stressful, your vet can give some tips on transportation.
If you think your cat is breathing rapidly, this can be an emergency. Always have your cat evaluated by a trained veterinarian at the first sign of rapid breathing.
If the rapid breathing resolves after a few minutes, start to record details of the duration of the episode, what was happening before and after, and date these occurred to share with your veterinarian. These keen observations can help narrow down potential causes and define triggers.
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.