Why Is My Cat Heavy Breathing? Causes and Treatment · The Wildest

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Why Is My Cat Heavy Breathing?

This can happen over time or very suddenly. Either way, it’s important to learn more about this symptom

Red Cat On Threshold Looks At The Camera And Meows.
Laura Stolfi / Stocksy

Heavy breathing in cats is often a sign of a medical problem, and it’s important to be aware of the symptoms. Conditions associated with heavy breathing in cats include asthma, heartworm, respiratory infections and congestive heart failure. If your cat is breathing heavily when they are at rest or in situations where they would normally be calm, please take them to the vet.

What does it mean when a cat is breathing heavily? 

Heavy breathing in cats can be characterised a few different ways, including panting, difficulty breathing and respiratory distress. Panting is not common in cats but does not always indicate a medical problem. Cats can pant when they’re stressed or after strenuous activity. Cats can also pant when they become overheated. The panting should quickly resolve after the cat is able to rest or relax. Persistent panting in cats is not normal and should be evaluated. 

Difficulty breathing, or ‘dyspnoea’, can slowly develop over time or occur suddenly. Several medical conditions can cause dyspnoea in a cat, including infection, heart disease, trauma and cancer. Breathing difficulty can look like slow, deliberate, laboured breathing or rapid, shallow breaths. It can also involve loud, raspy breathing or wheezes. A cat that is having difficulty breathing is having a medical emergency and should receive veterinary attention ASAP. 

Laboured or difficult breathing in a cat can rapidly progress to respiratory distress. A cat with respiratory distress is exactly as described – distressed. This means that the effort they must put into breathing is causing them extreme anxiety, pain and stress. Cats in respiratory distress need immediate veterinary care so that life-saving treatments can be started. 

What are potential causes of heavy breathing in cats? 

Breathing changes in cats can come up slowly over time or suddenly. Potential causes for heavy breathing in cats include:

Asthma/allergic bronchitis

Feline asthma and allergic bronchitis cause chronic inflammation of the lower airways in cats. This can lead to increased mucus production, airway spasms, coughing, wheezing and heavy breathing. 

Heart disease

Cats with heart disease are at risk for developing fluid build up in or around the lungs, which leads to difficulty breathing. 


Cats with upper or lower respiratory infections can develop heavy breathing. Respiratory infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. 


Cancer can affect a cat’s respiratory system in a number of ways. Cats with cancer can develop tumours, abnormal fluid accumulation and other changes that can affect breathing. 

Pleural effusion/pneumothorax

The pleural cavity is the small space between the lungs and the chest wall. If this area fills with fluid (called pleural effusion) or gas (called a pneumothorax), it can restrict a cat’s ability to take deep breaths and fill their lungs with air. 


Red blood cells deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues. In severe cases of anaemia (low red blood cell count), the body can become oxygen-starved, resulting in heavy breathing. 


Trauma can result in heavy breathing by causing direct injury to the chest, pressure on the lungs and bleeding in the chest cavity. Head trauma and pain can also affect a cat’s breathing patterns. 

Heartworm disease

Heartworms can cause severe inflammation in the airways, leading to breathing changes. Whilst the UK is currently free of heartworm, pay extra attention if you‘re considering taking your cat abroad.

What are the symptoms of heavy breathing in cats? 

Heavy or rapid breathing in a cat can manifest in a number of ways. Cats are very good at hiding the fact that something is not quite right, so it’s important for cat parents to recognise what breathing issues can look like. Symptoms of respiratory problems in cats include:

  • open-mouthed breathing

  • abdominal breathing

  • noticeably short, shallow, or deep breaths

  • coughing

  • wheezy, raspy breathing

  • orthopnoea (standing with elbows out and neck extended)

  • pale or blue-tinged gums

When to be concerned about your cat’s heavy breathing

Cats may not show obvious signs of breathing problems until they are in significant distress. It’s important to notice these symptoms early, even if your cat is trying to keep an issue under wraps.

Your cat is breathing heavily while resting

Cats should breathe easily and quietly while at rest. If your cat’s respiratory rate is increased while resting or sleeping, this can indicate an underlying issue. 

Your cat is breathing heavily and wheezing

Cats with asthma, chronic bronchitis or other inflammatory diseases can wheeze when inflammation causes narrowing of their lower airways. 

Your cat’s heavy breathing is noisy or raspy

Loud, heavy breathing in a cat can be a sign of upper airway obstruction or congestion. This can occur with inflammation, mucus production, abnormal tissue growth or foreign objects. 

Your cat is orthopnoeic

Orthopnoea is the act of positioning oneself in an effort to expand lung capacity. In cats, orthopnoea looks like standing in a crouched position with the elbows and neck extended. Cats will assume this position in an effort to get more air, and cat parents should use it as a cue to seek immediate veterinary attention. 

Your cat is open-mouthed breathing

Cats aren’t mouth breathers. Cats will resort to open-mouthed breathing if their nasal passages are obstructed or if they’re working hard to breathe. 

Your cat is displaying abdominal breathing

When a cat is using their abdominal muscles to move air, it’s referred to as ‘abdominal breathing’. Abdominal breathing means that a cat’s breathing is laboured, and they should receive veterinary attention. 

Your cat’s breaths are abnormally deep or shallow

A cat displaying abnormally deep or shallow breathing may be having difficulty expanding their lungs or be experiencing other respiratory issues. 

How do vets diagnose breathing problems in cats?

When veterinary staff members are dealing with a cat with respiratory issues, they put a lot of energy toward minimising the cat’s stress. A cat can go from having mildly heavy breathing to full-on respiratory distress in a blink of an eye. So, when presented with this challenge, veterinarians try to be careful but efficient. It’s not uncommon for vets to have a cat just sit with supplemental oxygen before risking the stress of handling. 

Veterinarians will perform a physical exam, which often starts with direct observation of the cat’s demeanour and respiratory patterns. Vets will use a stethoscope to listen to a cat’s chest to detect any abnormal heart or lung sounds. Imaging is commonly used to help diagnose causes of respiratory problems in cats. This may involve radiographs (X-rays) and/or ultrasound. Ultrasound can be used to take a quick peek to check for abnormal fluid in the chest or to perform a diagnostic scan of the heart, called an echocardiogram. 

Additional testing may be recommended to rule out specific diseases or to further evaluate a cat’s health. For example, if a cat has fluid in their chest cavity, a veterinarian may collect the fluid and have it evaluated for abnormal cells or organisms. Ancillary testing may also include blood work, faecal examination and tests performed at outside laboratories. 

Can it be normal for cats to breathe heavily? 

It’s not normal for cats to breathe heavily. Cats may sometimes display rapid breathing in times of stress or exertion, but this should quickly resolve with rest and calm. Cat parents who notice heavy breathing or respiratory changes in their cats should seek veterinary advice. 

Do cats breathe heavier when sleeping?

There should not be a noticeable change in respiratory effort when cats are sleeping. Normal resting respiratory rate for a cat ranges from 15–40 breaths per minute, on average. Cats’ breathing tends to be deeper and slower while sleeping, but cats should not breathe heavily while they sleep. 

How can you treat heavy breathing in cats?

Treatment for heavy breathing in cats depends on the cause. All cats with laboured breathing can benefit from oxygen therapy, regardless of the cause. Because cats often don’t tolerate oxygen masks on their faces, an easy (and low stress) way to deliver oxygen is to place a cat in an oxygen-rich environment, such as a specialised oxygen cage. 

Respiratory infections may require antibiotics or antifungals, depending on the type of microorganism present. Heart disease often requires medications to reduce fluid accumulation, reduce blood pressure and help with heart function.

Cats with asthma benefit from medications to help reduce airway inflammation, as well as environmental adjustments to reduce triggers. Cats with pleural effusion or pneumothorax often see a rapid improvement in breathing quality after the fluid or air is removed from their pleural space. Because cancer can manifest in a number of ways, treatment varies widely, ranging from medications to chemotherapy to surgery. 

Is there a way to prevent heavy breathing in cats?

Some health issues are coded into a cat’s DNA and can’t be avoided, but cat parents can take precautions to avoid preventable issues or help decrease the severity of respiratory diseases. Prevention for heavy breathing in cats include:

  • Reducing exposure to cigarette smoke, potpourri, spray cleaners and other airway irritants.

  • Using low-dust or dust-free cat litter.

  • Avoiding obesity with appropriate diet and exercise.

  • Staying on top of preventative care.

  • Seeking veterinary attention for any respiratory changes in your cat.

Frequently asked questions

Can hot weather cause heavy breathing in cats?

Unlike dogs, cats don’t depend on panting to keep themselves cool. But some cats (especially younger ones) can pant when overheated. Cats should be seen by a vet if their panting doesn’t quickly resolve with a cool environment and rest. 

Can heavy breathing be a sign of pain in cats?

Heavy breathing can be a sign of pain in cats. Heavy breathing from pain can occur with chest injuries or pain originating in any other part of the body. 

Should I be concerned if my pregnant cat is breathing heavily?

A pregnant cat should not breathe heavily throughout her pregnancy, but she may display heavy breathing during labour due to the physical demands of giving birth. If a cat in labour seems to be in distress, seek veterinary advice. 

Should I be concerned if my old cat is breathing heavily?

It is not normal for a cat of any age to breathe heavily. Heavy breathing in a cat can be a sign of underlying heart disease, respiratory infection, trauma, cancer or other disease. 


alycia washington, dvm

Dr. Alycia Washington, DVM, MS

Alycia Washington, DVM, is a small animal emergency veterinarian based in North Carolina. She works as a relief veterinarian and provides services to numerous emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington is also a children’s book author and freelance writer with a focus on veterinary medicine. She has a special fondness for turtles, honey bees, and penguins — none of which she treats. In her free time, Dr. Washington enjoys travel, good food, and good enough coffee. 

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