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Why is my cat breathing heavy?

While we can expect our feline friends to pant a little after rigorous activity or exercise, panting can be worrisome when it happens at times of rest. But when is it considered an emergency? Here, our vets in Thornton talk about the causes of heavy breathing in cats and when you should bring them in for emergency veterinary care.

Heavy Breathing in Cats

While there are situations where it's normal for a cat to pant or breathe heavily, there are times when this may be a sign of a serious health concern or veterinary emergency.

If you notice your cat breathing heavily, start by assessing the situation to see if one of the circumstances below may be a contributing factor. If your cat's heavy breathing is out of the ordinary or if it's been happening for a long time, bring your feline friend in for veterinary treatment. 

What is considered normal for panting in dogs?

Sometimes it's normal for a cat to be panting. Think about what your cat was doing or experiencing right before you noticed their change in breathing. 

Similar to dogs, cats may pant when they are anxious, stressed, overheated or after exercising. This type of panting should stop once your kitty calms down, rests or cools down. 

That said, this kind of panting is still significantly more rare for cats than it is for dogs. So, if you aren't 100% sure why your cat is panting, it's time to see your vet. 

What causes abnormal breathing in cats?

If your cat isn't too warm, stressed and hasn't been exercised, heavy or labored breathing can point to a serious medical issue.

Umbrella medical terms for breathing problems include respiratory distress or dyspnea. While it's not a disease in itself, it's a common clinical sign of many different diseases. Emergency veterinary care may be required in circumstances involving dyspnea in cats. 


Asthma can also be a reason for cats panting, wheezing, and coughing, it can also increase their respiratory rate.  Asthma is treatable in cats and often requires medications called corticosteroids or bronchodilators.


Heartworm infections in cats can cause breathing difficulties. Treatment for heartworm includes supportive care with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and oxygen therapy in more serious cases. Since heartworm disease can be fatal for cats, it's essential to keep your kitty on monthly heartworm preventatives.

Congestive Heart Failure

When fluid builds up in and around the lungs, it can cause deep, rapid breathing, coughing, and panting. Treatment might include draining the fluid, as well as medications to dilate blood vessels, get rid of excess fluid, and make the heart contract more forcefully.

Respiratory Infection

Respiratory infections can make it very hard for cats to breathe, causing heavy breathing. Respiratory infections are usually viral, but when a secondary bacterial infection develops, antibiotics might be needed for treatment. Humidifiers and steam may help loosen mucus and make nasal breathing easier as your cat gets better.

Other Conditions That Can Cause Heavy Breathing

Trauma, anemia, neurologic disorders, abdominal enlargement, and pain can also cause cats to pant or exhibit heavy breathing.

What should you do if your cat is breathing heavily?

If your cat is having problems breathing or is breathing heavily, take her to your veterinarian immediately. While she’s being transported, you’ll want to minimize stress as much as possible. Use a box or carrier to keep your cat safe while on the way to the clinic, so her breathing is not compromised by being held.

Diagnoses & Treatment When a Cat is Breathing Heavy

To provide your cat with effective treatment it will be necessary for your vet to determine the underlying cause of your kitty's fast breathing. This may require several diagnostic tests such as bloodwork, urinalysis and/or diagnostic imaging.

Your cat's treatment will be focused on the underlying cause of the breathing issues. Depending on the cause of your kitty's rapid breathing treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Oxygen
  • Antihistamines
  • Steroids
  • Surgery to remove tumors
  • Procedures to drain fluid from the chest
  • Acupuncture

When you have any concerns related to your cat's ability to breathe you should contact your vet immediately. After all, it is always better to be proactive when there is a health concern.

If your cat has a medical issue affecting their breathing it will be best if it is managed sooner rather than later. Do not wait until your kitty's symptoms become severe. Early treatment could save you money in the long run and may help to protect your cat's health.

Should I bring my cat in for emergency veterinary care?

If your cat is suddenly breathing very fast it could indicate that they are in medical distress. Since proper oxygenation of the blood is essential to your cat's health, rapid breathing at rest is a symptom that should never be ignored.

If your cat’s sides are moving in and out dramatically, or if breathing is accompanied by a whistling sound or gasps contact your vet right away or call your nearest after-hours emergency animal hospital.

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.

If your cat is panting or breathing heavily, please contact our vets immediately during our regular business hours, or a 24-hour emergency vet in Thornton after hours. 

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Caring Hands Veterinary Hospital is always accepting new patients! Our vets are passionate about providing kind and loving veterinary care to Thornton companion animals. Get in touch today to book your pet's first appointment.

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