Heavy Breathing Cats (Dyspnea): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Heavy breathing cat

Strenuous exercise, anxiety, stress and excess heat can cause heavy breathing in cats but it should resolve itself after a few minutes or rest. However, unlike canines, felines are not prone to panting and heavy breathing and could be a symptom of an underlying health problem like cardiovascular disease.

Be observant and monitor your cat’s wellness because early detection could be the difference between life and death. If you notice your cat breathing heavy or see other symptoms, you should consider consulting your veterinarian if it continues for a long time and appears out of the ordinary.

Causes of Heavy Breathing Cat

Heavy breathing could be a symptom of a serious underlying illness/ injury or it could be as a result of a single event. The most common causes include:

Airway diseases

Diseases such as feline asthma, pulmonary oedema and pneumonia can cause heavy breathing in cats. These diseases impair the ability to get oxygen into the bloodstream hence the cat breaths heavily more rapidly to compensate for the inadequate oxygen in the bloodstream.

Pulmonary oedema is the most common cause of heavy breathing in cats. Fluid buildup within the lungs is mainly caused by heart failure due to cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart) but it can also be as a result of a ruptured thoracic duct, choking, cancer, electrocution, near drowning or other systematic diseases. Pleural effusion is fluid build- up at the pleural space, it is caused by pyothorax, chylothorax, feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), cancer and heart failure. It makes the lungs not to inflate properly.


Heavy breathing is a symptom of trauma. A fall or blunt force trauma or pain, stress or shock as a result of a traumatic event can cause heavy breathing in cats.

Brachycephaly (short skull)

Cats with snubbed noses and squashed faces experience a lot of health issues including breathing difficulties, elongation of the soft palate, and closed nostrils. A cat with a short skull lacks room to fit all the requirements needed for normal breathing. Tear stains can be noticed on the faces of brachycephatic cats.


Obese cats experience numerous health problems ranging from acute to chronic illnesses. Difficulty in breathing is one of these health issues. Obesity leads to decreased lung capacity, excess fat build-up and also weakened muscles. All these results in doing more work in order to get enough oxygen to the lungs.


Although it is rare, cats can get heartworm. Heavy breathing is a symptom of heartworm and this disease can be fatal. To be on the safe side, give your cat a monthly heartworm preventative medication.

Other causes of heavy breathing include pulmonary diseases, airway obstruction, and chest/ throat tumours.

Symptoms of Heavy Breathing Cat

When a cat is breathing normally, its chest should make small movements. If the stomach and chest make rapid rising and falling movements when your cat breaths, it could be an indication of laboured breathing.

Some of the other indicators of heavy breathing are:

  • Open mouth breathing.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Lowered head with the neck and body extended forward.
  • Blue-tinged tongue, lips or nose.
  • Lethargy.
  • Coughing and gagging.
  • Rapid rising and falling of stomach/chest

Diagnosis and Treatment of Heavy Breathing Cat

As soon as you suspect your cat is experiencing some difficulty in breathing or you notice the symptoms, get in touch with your veterinarian. A vet will carry out a couple of tests to determine the underlying causes. Blood work, urinalysis and other exams might be conducted.

A comprehensive physical and medical history will help the vet narrow down the potential causes. Monitor the progression of the symptoms as this information will be helpful to your vet. Information on injuries your cat might have suffered will help identify the potential trauma that would be making your cat breath heavy.

The blood work is used to test the presence of any infections. Preliminary results from the blood work, physical examination and review of the symptoms may pave way for more examinations like chest x-rays or ultrasounds in order to arrive at a conclusive diagnosis. These tests help to identify foreign objects, fluid build-up or potential tumours. To get the best images, your cat will need to remain calm and still. Some cats may need to be sedated.

The treatment for heavy breathing cat is tailored to the cause. In the case of an infection or pneumonia the vet will prescribe heavy antibiotics and in most cases, the cat will be admitted in hospital for further observation and round the clock care. The cat will receive fluids, oxygen and IV to help nurse her back to health. Pulmonary oedema is treated with diuretic medication and oxygen while pleural effusion will need to be drained to re-inflate the lungs.

Trauma-related injuries without bone fracture, require pain medication. You will be able to take your cat home in such a case but make sure you provide a safe, quiet and warm recovery environment. When the cause is allergies, antihistamines are the appropriate remedy.


Jenny is an avid animal lover and enjoys spending time with her two adopted cats and one dog who lost one leg in an accident. Inspired to blog about pets by her dad, a retired veterinarian, and veteran.

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