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Breathing problems in cats

Breathing difficulties (dyspnoea) are a relatively common emergency in cats. There are several reasons why your cat may experience difficulty breathing and any age of cat can be affected. Breathing difficulties are a potentially life threatening problem. It is important to remain calm and quiet, and contact your vet as quickly as possible in order to minimise additional stress for your cat. Here our vet shares their advice about signs to look for and what to do in an emergency situation.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


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Clinical signs that indicate breathing problems

  • Increase in respiratory rate (normal 15-30 breaths per minute)
  • Panting or open mouth breathing
  • Breathing that requires abdominal effort
  • Change in posture - lowering the head and extending the neck
  • Noisy breathing
  • Coughing
  • Inappetence
  • Lethargy
  • Change in the colour of the gums (grey, white, bright pink or red, purple)


Causes of breathing problems

There are a range of reasons that cats develop breathing difficulties. One of the most common causes is a respiratory infection, such as cat flu or pneumonia. In addition, fluid or air may abnormally accumulate in the chest. Cats can also develop heart disease, asthma or anaemia.

If your cat is having difficulty breathing, the cause needs to be determined quickly; an immediate trip to your vet is required. You can help your vet by giving a full history when you arrive at the clinic.


Diagnosing the cause of breathing problems

Your vet will start with a physical examination. They will observe your cat breathing and listen to their chest to assess the lungs. They will also listen to the heart, check the colour of their gums and take their temperature. Your vet will ask you questions about recent events that may be relevant to the cat’s presentation.

Tests may be recommended, which can be carried out quickly in emergency situations to help to narrow down the differential diagnoses. Common tests include a blood sample, ultrasound scan or x-ray, and pulse oximetry to check the level of oxygen in the blood. Often the vet will ask if they can take your cat to a quiet area where oxygen can be administered, which can help to provide symptomatic relief.


Treatment of breathing problems

As well as oxygen therapy, your vet will administer additional medication based on the results of the clinical examination and tests. The medication will be symptomatic in order to help your cat to breath more easily, and will also address the underlying cause(s) as appropriate. Your cat may need to be hospitalised for ongoing monitoring and treatment, and may remain in an oxygen chamber to support their recovery.


When to contact a vet?

  • If you notice any of the clinical signs above
  • If you have any other concerns about your cat


Still worried?

Book a video appointment to have a chat with one of our vets.

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