What are Breathing Difficulties?

It is very disturbing to see your cat struggling to take a breath. Dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, is not a disease but a symptom of an underlying condition that could be caused by hundreds of diseases or medical conditions. For example, your cat may have a foreign object up its nose, or it may be experiencing allergy-induced asthma. Heart failure is another prime reason cats show signs of breathing difficulties, and this condition requires immediate veterinary evaluation.

Dyspnea is often referred to as respiratory distress. Your cat may struggle with inhaling, exhaling or both. You may also notice your cat panting noisily or keeping its mouth open. Coughing is another symptom that often accompanies dyspnea. Whatever the systemic cause for labored breathing, your cat needs an immediate medical evaluation since this condition cannot be treated at home and can be deadly.

Symptoms of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

When a cat is breathing rapidly with its mouth open, it’s obvious it’s having trouble breathing. Other symptoms of respiratory distress are more subtle but obvious to the eye and the ear. Since breathing difficulties in cats are dangerous and may rapidly become life threatening, seek immediate veterinary care if your cat is showing any of these symptoms:

  • Labored breathing
  • Panting
  • Exaggerated abdomen and chest movements
  • Crouching low to the ground with elbows out
  • Flared nostrils
  • Rapid breathing
  • Breathing with mouth agape
  • Head low to the ground
  • Noisy, raspy breathing
  • Coughing
  • Retching
  • Lethargy
  • Shaking

Causes of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

There are so many possible reasons a cat is showing respiratory distress, only a veterinarian can make the proper diagnosis. Some of the many varied reasons for breathing difficulties are:

  • Asthma
  • Airway obstruction
  • Anxiety 
  • Stress 
  • Obesity
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Shock
  • Heat stroke
  • Lung disease
  • Heart disease
  • Infections
  • Blood disorders
  • Pain
  • Poison ingestion
  • Pneumonia
  • Cancer
  • Hyperthyroidism

Diagnosis of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

Most likely, the first thing your veterinarian will do is ask you questions about when the breathing issues started, the symptoms you witnessed and what preceded the respiratory distress. If your cat is having serious difficulties breathing, your veterinarian will administer oxygen before testing begins. Your veterinarian may perform some or all of the following tests:

Physical Examination: Your cat’s general health will be determined by taking vital signs and examining its ears, eyes, nose and gums. Your cat’s lungs and chest will be listened to with a stethoscope to determine if there is fluid in the lungs or an abnormal heartbeat. The veterinarian may palpate the abdominal area also.

Blood Tests: Blood may be drawn to test the oxygen and carbon dioxide level in your cat’s blood and to check for heartworm disease. Other blood tests will show inflammation and or infections present.

Urine Sample: A urine test will aid in diagnosing the cause of the dyspnea.

X-rays and Ultrasound: These diagnostic tests help the veterinarian to virtually see inside your cat’s body to check for tumors, obstructions or fluid buildup.

Fluid aspiration: A sample of chest, lung and abdominal fluid may be drawn for evaluation and testing.

ECG: An ECG (electrocardiogram) test may be required if your veterinarian suspects a heart problem.

Endoscopy: If the breathing problem is caused by a blocked nasal cavity or airway, this test will help determine the next step in treatment, and it may aid in collecting tissue samples for testing.

Treatment of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

Depending on the reason for your cat’s dyspnea, treatment may be as simple as prescribing an antibiotic to more serious actions such as surgery or hospitalization with oxygen and IV therapy. 

Respiratory infection: Antibiotics are usually prescribed to fight the infection and aid in breathing.

Foreign object: If tests show a foreign object is obstructing the nasal passage, it may be removed in the office with surgical tweezers. 

Asthma: Steroids and bronchodilators are two of the medicines that may be prescribed to help your cat breathe easier.

Heat stroke: Your veterinarian will lower your cat’s body temperature and, if necessary, provide oxygen.

Dehydration: Your cat will be given an IV to increase fluids to a normal level.

Fluid in lungs, chest or abdomen: Fluid may be aspirated to relieve your cat’s distress.

Tumors and cancer: Surgery may be required to remove the growth along with oral or injectable medicines.

Recovery of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

In many cases, medicines and rest will aid in the recovery of your cat’s breathing problems. If veterinary care is administered quickly, heatstroke and dehydration are normally easy to treat and recovery is often rapid. If stress and anxiety are causing your cat to exhibit breathing difficulties, it’s imperative you find the cause of this distress and eliminate it if possible. If allergies are at the root of your cat’s dyspnea, your veterinarian will make suggestions on the best diet or bedding, and those changes will aid in your cat’s recovery.

If your cat has a serious diagnosis like cancer, surgery may require a prolonged hospital stay before it can be released from care. Other medical treatments like chemotherapy may be needed over an extended time. Be sure to keep all follow-up appointments with your veterinarian to ensure a speedy and total recovery and to avoid a recurrence of your cat’s medical emergency.

Cost of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

Breathing Difficulties can be an expensive treatment in cats and can range from $500.00 to $4000.00 depending on the cost of living and severity of your Cat's breathing difficulties. On average, the national cost of treating breathing difficulties in cats is $1000.00.

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The statements expressed are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified by your local veterinarian.