Last Updated on March 10, 2021 by Julia Wilson
At a glance
Panting is defined as open-mouthed breathing; it is not as common in cats as it is in dogs; however, the appearance is the same. It can be a sign that a cat is having difficulty breathing.
Not all panting indicates an underlying condition. It is normal for a cat to pant after playing when they are stressed and as a way to cool down. The latter can be an indicator that your cat is suffering from heat stress.
- Heat stress
- Heart disorders
- Pleural effusion
The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care to help the cat breathe.
Panting is the open-mouthed, rapid breathing; it is much more commonly seen in dogs than cats. Some cats are more prone to panting than others. In some circumstances, panting can be normal, but it may also be a sign of an underlying problem.
When is panting normal?
Panting after exercise or play can be normal, increased activity (during exercise) requires more oxygen, which your cat obtains by breathing more rapidly (just as we do when we have been running). The cat in the photo above is panting because she had been chasing toys.
Panting is also means by which a cat lowers his body temperature, which can occur during exercise or on a hot day.
Anxiety and stress
Stressful situations such as going to the veterinarian can cause your cat to hyperventilate; this is generally not serious.
Sometimes a cat will pant on a hot day too, this is a sign of heat stress and is a warning to take steps to cool your cat down. If you notice any of the following, seek medical treatment immediately:
- Bright red tongue
- Dark red gums
- Bleeding from the nose
When is panting not normal?
Panting (open-mouthed breathing), rapid breathing (tachypnea) and breathlessness/shortness of breath (dyspnea) all have similar symptoms and may be used interchangeably when describing your cat’s symptoms. Tachypnea and dyspnea can be confused with panting, but the pet owner should always be on alert to a cat who is breathing with his mouth open and/or rapidly who hasn’t exercised or isn’t in a stressful situation (such as at the veterinarian’s office).
While the title of this article is panting, the medical conditions listed below relate to tachypnea and dyspnea. They are a sign that your cat is having difficulty getting enough oxygen. This may be due to low levels of oxygen in the blood or difficulty transporting the blood to the tissues (such as heart problems).
There are several possible causes of panting/rapid breathing in cats. Most relate to lack of oxygen in the blood, heart conditions which means oxygen isn’t transported around the body as efficiently as it should be or breathing difficulty (due to obstruction of the airways, which once again, results in low oxygen levels).
|Also known as feline bronchial disease, allergic bronchitis, allergic airway disease and allergic asthma), asthma is a noninfectious respiratory condition that is characterised by acute constriction of the lower airways, which results in coughing and respiratory distress. Asthma is one of the most common causes of respiratory diseases in cats, affecting around one in 100, attacks may range from mild to severe and life-threatening. Inhalation of an allergen is the trigger of asthma with common allergens such as pollen, perfume, cigarette smoke, smoke from household fires, mould, household sprays (hairspray, air fresheners etc.) and dust from cat litter.
|Anemia is a condition characterised by a reduced number of red blood (also known as erythrocytes) cells in the blood. Is not a disease in itself but a symptom of an underlying condition. It may be caused by blood loss, red blood cell destruction (known as hemolysis) or inadequate red blood cell production.
The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care, which can include:
|Inflammation of the mucous membrane of the bronchial tubes can be caused by viral or bacterial infections.
Find and address the underlying cause and bronchodilators to open up the cat’s airways and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
|Fever is an increase in body temperature which can be caused by infection, inflammation, certain drugs, cancer, endocrine disorders (hypoparathyroidism) and idiopathic (no known cause), infections are the most common cause of fever in cats.
Generally, temperatures < 105°F (40.5°C) should be monitored closely if the temperature rises above 105°F then veterinary attention is required. Treatment can include:
|Heartworm, cardiovascular disease, heart murmur, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. All of these conditions mean that your heart is not working as efficiently as it should be, transporting oxygenated blood around the body. A heart that is not beating efficiently can lead to the build-up of fluid in the lungs and abdomen.
|A precursor to heatstroke. A cat who is overheating will pant to try and cool down. If your cat is panting on a hot day, it is essential to try and cool him down by bringing him indoors, turning on the air conditioning or turning on fans and offering him cold water (put ice cubes in on hot days).
|Medically known as hyperthermia, heatstroke is a life-threatening medical condition in which the body’s internal organs (liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain) begin to shut down as a result of elevated body temperature caused by high temperatures and humidity. Old cats, kittens, sick cats, brachycephalic breeds (Persians and Exotics) and cats with heart conditions are at increased risk.
Volume (fluid) replacement
Manage secondary complications
|Also known as thyrotoxicosis, hyperthyroidism (FHT) is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder that is caused by the overactivity of the thyroid gland due to a benign tumour that speeds up your cat’s metabolism. Increased metabolism leads to weight loss, constant hunger, increased heart rate and rapid breathing due to increased body heat.
There are several treatment options which include radioactive iodine therapy to destroy the tumour, surgery to remove the tumour, medications and switching to a low-iodine diet.
|Pleural effusion is an abnormal buildup of fluid up in the pleural cavity, the thin fluid-filled space that lies between the lungs and the chest wall and is a symptom, with an underlying disorder causing this fluid to build up. The buildup of excess fluid leads to difficulty breathing, due to the inability of the lungs to fully expand. Most fluids are transudates or exudates. Transudate (protein poor/clear watery fluid) effusion or exudate (protein-rich/thick fluid) effusion.
There are several possible causes including heart disease, liver disease, cancer, fluid overload, lung lobe torsion, diaphragmatic hernia, blood clotting disorders (usually due to ingestion of rat poison) pulmonary embolism, infection, drug reaction and pancreatitis.
|Pneumothorax (new-mo-thorax) is an abnormal accumulation of air in the pleural cavity which is between the lungs and the chest wall. Usually, there is a small amount of serous fluid in the pleural space which acts as a lubricant during breathing. Air entering the pleural space means there is less room for the lungs to expand when the cat inhales and causes the lung(s) to collapse (which is why the term collapsed lung is often used when describing pneumothorax). There are three classifications of pneumothorax in cats depending on the cause.
|It is not unusual for a cat in pain to pant; this may include when they are giving birth. Aside from giving birth, a cat in pain should be seen by a veterinarian. Cats are masters at hiding signs of sickness; if a cat is panting in pain, it needs immediate veterinary attention.
The goal of treatment is to find and address the underlying cause as well as provide supportive care and pain relief. Never administer painkillers to a cat as all over the counter pain medications are toxic.
|Shock is a life-threatening condition defined as a lack of blood flow that results in the body not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients. Any condition which affects the heart, vessels or blood volume can induce shock. If not recognised and treated immediately it can be fatal.
Treatment is aimed at providing supportive care and restoring and maintaining blood flow along with addressing the underlying cause.
Shock is severe and can quickly kill if not treated immediately. If your cat has been hit by a car but appears happy and well it is still essential to take him to the veterinarian for a check-up because he may be in shock without you knowing.
- Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body with the head and neck extended (bulldog stance) – This indicates that your cat is having difficulty breathing.
- Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke)
- Blue or pale gum colour
- Pale mucous membranes due to anemia or shock
- Difficulty standing
Diagnosing the cause
Your vet will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and look for other symptoms (such as those listed above). During the examination, the veterinarian will listen to the heart and lungs for abnormal heartbeat and lung sounds.
He may wish to perform some diagnostic tests including:
- Baseline tests – Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis. These tests evaluate the overall health of the cat and can reveal liver and kidney dysfunction, diabetes, infection and inflammation.
- Heartworm testing – A blood test to check for the presence of antigens or antibodies in the blood.
- T3 and T4 blood tests – To detect elevated levels of the hormones T3 and T4 for cats with suspected hyperthyroidism.
- ECG (electrocardiogram) – This is an ultrasound reading of the heart to check for possible heartworms or other heart abnormalities.
- Ultrasound (abdominal, heart) – To check for heartworm, fluid build-up in the abdomen or around the heart and tumours.
In addition to the treatments listed above, a panting cat will often need supportive care to help him breathe and manage symptoms. This can include:
- Oxygen therapy.
- Medications to open up the cat’s airways (bronchodilators).
- Cage rest.
- IV fluids to treat dehydration, if necessary.