Why is my cat panting?

Estimated Reading Time 5 minutes
Why is my cat panting?

Panting is defined as a rapid, short, breathing pattern, usually done with an open mouth. Panting in dogs is often considered normal and isn’t usually a cause for concern. In cats, however, panting is usually interpreted as a sign of health or respiratory problems. Panting is considered uncommon in these animals and can indicate the presence of illness, which can vary from mild respiratory disturbance to life-threatening health problems. Identifying the cause of panting in cats can help determine if immediate medical intervention is needed. Keep reading to learn more!

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Common Causes of Panting in Cats

1. Cats pant to cool off and regulate body heat

Different species have different mechanisms to keep their body temperature controlled even when in an environment with extreme temperatures. Humans rely on their sweat glands to help cool them off when they’re subjected to high temperatures. The sweat produced from these glands helps humans to release the body heat and the evaporation of sweat from the skin helps them cool off during a hot day.

Cats, however, have very minimal sweat glands in their body. Sweat glands in cats are only found in their paw pads, and the rate of sweat production in these glands in response to increased environmental temperature is not enough to regulate the temperature of the animal’s entire body. Instead, cats breathe rapidly through panting to help them cool off.

Panting allows for rapid air humidification and evaporation in the nose and lungs, which helps cats regulate their body temperature, especially when exposed to high ambient temperatures. However, panting to release heat and regulate body temperature is still quite uncommon in cats and should raise concern for heatstroke.

Cats can adapt well to their environment and often try other means to cool off first such as finding shade or shelter. Panting is usually done when the animal can’t find other means to help it cool off in a scorching environment.

2. Panting can be a sign of stress for cats

Cats are highly sensitive animals and can become stressed even from the most subtle changes in their environment. This is even more apparent if a cat is placed in a different environment such as a veterinary clinic or a grooming facility. When stressed, cats exhibit tell-tale physical signs and behaviors such as hiding in the corner of the cage or the carrier, reluctance to go out of the carrier, tendency to scratch or bite when being handled or restrained, and an increased respiratory rate or panting.

In cats, panting can also be a sign of stress. When put inside a carrier or cage, or when traveling, cat owners may notice their feline friends start to pant even if the ambient environment is relatively cool. Panting due to stress usually persists unless the stress factor is removed, and usually resolves as soon as the feline patient becomes relaxed and calm. Figuring out what the cause of stress is and eliminating it is often enough to control the animal’s panting.

3. Panting can be a sign of respiratory disease in cats

Respiratory diseases are the most common pathologic cause of panting in cats. Signs associated with respiratory diseases can range from mild to severe depending on the specific cause and the extent of the condition.

Infectious causes of respiratory disease in cats can be viral or bacterial. Initial signs of respiratory infection are usually coughing and sneezing. Nasal discharge is usually present in upper respiratory tract infections. In severe cases where airways start to narrow, breathing difficulties are commonly observed in infected cats, and panting is usually seen. Changes in the color of the mucous membrane also occur when the oxygenation of lungs and tissues is compromised.

Inflammatory respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and feline asthma are also common pathologic causes of panting in cats. These conditions cause severe inflammation of the lower respiratory tract resulting in narrowing of airways and excessive production of mucous along its lining. This ultimately results in difficulty breathing for the affected animal, which is commonly manifested through panting.

If panting in cats is persistent despite eliminating all possible stressors, pathologic causes must be considered. Your vet will perform a thorough physical exam and may request various diagnostic tests such as blood tests, radiographs, CT scans, and MRIs to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

Treatment will ultimately depend on the diagnosis. Infections are usually treated with antibacterial and antiviral medications. Systemic corticosteroids are the treatment of choice for inflammatory respiratory diseases. Lifelong management may be necessary in some cases of feline inflammatory respiratory diseases.

4. Heart disease can cause panting in cats

Heart problems are considered a common, but often underdiagnosed, disease in cats. Since initial signs of heart disease are often general and non-specific, most cases go undiagnosed until the condition has become severe and possibly life-threatening.

The heart is the organ responsible for distributing oxygenated blood to different tissues and organs. Pathologic changes in the heart result in compromised blood circulation and poor gas exchange in the lungs during respiration. This results in a multitude of clinical signs that progressively worsen if left undiagnosed and untreated.

Initial signs of heart disease in cats include mild weakness, a decrease in appetite, and changes in the animal’s daily activity. As the condition progresses, more serious signs such as coughing, exercise intolerance, inappetence, and breathing difficulties such as panting start to appear.

Since there’s poor tissue oxygenation in severe cases of feline heart disease, the animal will try to compensate by panting or breathing rapidly. In specific heart conditions, like congestive heart failure, fluid accumulation may occur in the lung tissues causing breathing difficulties manifested by persistent and excessive panting.

Diagnosis is done through a physical exam and several diagnostic tests. Your vet may need to perform diagnostic imaging such as radiographs and ultrasound to assess the physical properties of the heart. Specific heart function tests such as echocardiogram and electrocardiogram can help determine the specific heart condition a feline patient has.

If you suspect that your cat’s panting is abnormal and may be due to a health problem, it’s best to visit your vet as soon as possible to determine the cause and come up with a treatment plan.

Read more:

Caring for Pets with Pneumonia

Heart Murmurs in Cats

Common Diseases in Cats

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Published: 10/22/2021

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