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My cat is breathing fast. Should I be worried?

My cat is breathing fast. Should I be worried?

It can be frightening to see your cat breathing quickly, especially if you don't know if it is considered an emergency or not. In this post, our Walnut Creek vets explain the causes of fast and rapid breathing in cats and when you should call a vet. 

Why Is My Cat Breathing So Fast?

When cats breath rapidly it is called tachypnea. A healthy respiratory (breathing) rate for a cat is usually between 20 and 30 breaths per minute.

To determine what your cat’s resting respiration rate is, count the number of breaths they take while they are resting. One breath includes inhaling (when the chest rises) and exhaling (when the chest falls). It’s important that your cat isn't purring when you count their breathing rate. The sleeping rate is usually a little lower than their resting breathing rate.

Time them on your phone or a watch to count how many breaths happen in that 30-second period. Then you’ll multiply the number of breaths you counted by two to arrive at the number of breaths your cat takes in one minute.

Possible Causes of Fast & Rapid Breathing in Cats

Fast breathing in cats could be a sign of various injuries or illnesses and should be assessed by your veterinarian as quickly as possible. Some potential causes of rapid breathing in cats include:

  • Heat
  • Exertion
  • Allergies
  • Emotional distress
  • Pain, stress, or shock
  • Heartworm
  • Anemia
  • Tumors in the throat or chest
  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Asthma 
  • Respiratory infection
  • Foreign object lodged in the windpipe or other airway obstruction
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia)
  • Trauma, exposure to toxins, or injury
  • Low levels of red blood cells (anemia)
  • Bleeding into lungs
  • Pleural effusion (abnormal buildup of fluid in the chest cavity)
  • Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid)
     

Signs Your Cat is Breathing Rapidly

If your cat is breathing quickly, you may notice several signs, including:

  • Their belly and chest are both moving with each breath
  • Loud breathing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gagging
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Rapidly rising and falling stomach or chest
  • Nostrils flaring
  • Panting or breathing with an open mouth (like a dog)
  • Coughing
  • Blue-colored gums

If your cat appears to be breathing faster than usual, check for any factors that could be contributing to the condition and remove them. For example, if your cat has been outside in the hot sun, or if emotional distress or anxiety are factors, move them to a cooler, quieter location straight away and make sure they have lots of water to drink.

Breathing rate is an indicator of overall health - if your cat is suddenly breathing fast while sleeping (consistently more than 30 breaths per minute), this could be an early clinical sign of heart failure. Lower rates may be no cause for concern if your pet is behaving normally otherwise.

Also note that for some cats, your vet may consider rates lower than 30 breaths per minute as increased and abnormal - the right breathing rate for your cat should be assessed on an individual basis.

Your vigilant observations can help limit how sick your kitty becomes, reduce their chance of requiring overnight hospital stays and help reduce costs related to the treatment of heart failure.

What You Should Do If Your Cat is Breathing Fast

If you find that your cat’s breathing is consistently fast after monitoring it for a couple of hours, call your veterinarian as quickly as possible, so they can recommend the next steps you should take. Your cat might just require an adjustment in medications.

If you see other symptoms in addition to a faster sleeping breathing rate or symptoms have become worse, this could be a medical emergency. In this situation, your vet may evaluate your cat’s medical situation during your call and will likely tell you to bring your kitty in to see them or to take them to an emergency animal hospital.

Diagnosing Cats That are Breathing Fast

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 with a steady supply of oxygen. Blood tests will be conducted to check for underlying illnesses or diseases, then X-rays and/or ultrasounds will be taken to examine the lungs and heart. At our Walnut Creek animal hospital, we use in-house diagnostic tools to provide the most accurate diagnosis for medical conditions and customize treatment plans to meet the needs of your furry friend.

Treating Cats That are Breathing Rapidly

In addition to a 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 cause of your cat's condition. For pleural effusion, fluid will be removed from the chest and analyzed. An echocardiogram and X-rays might 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, stay as calm as possible. If your cat finds traveling stressful, your vet can provide you with some transportation tips.

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 the 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.

Contact our Walnut Creek vets immediately if your cat is breathing quickly or showing other concerning symptoms.

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