Why is My Cat Breathing Fast - and should you be worried? (CTV #39)

If your cat is breathing fast, even if it’s only for a short period of time, then you need to know that they could be incredibly sick.

Cats are great at hiding signs of being unwell, and while they may be completely healthy, in my mind, a cat who is breathing quickly of heavily should be seen as a potential emergency.

the reasons why your cat is breathing fast - call the vet podcast episode 39 with picture of a panting cat, breathing heavily with mouth open
My small Maine Coon breathed heavily for 20 seconds. Is it serious?
— Michelle
  • Heavy breathing is always a bit of a worry in cats.

    • Cats are great at hiding signs of being unwell and so it might only be noticed that they are struggling when they are almost on deaths door - this is not an exaggeration!

    • Heavy breathing is also a worry, especially if there is a lot of abdominal movement

  • Breathing heavily can be a sign of a number of different things

    • Normal - physical exertion, fright

    • Pain

    • Lung disease - e.g. asthma, cancer

    • Fluid in the chest - e.g. due to heart failure, liver disease, and trauma

    • Infection - a cat bite to the chest is a common cause

    • Air in chest - caused by e.g. lung pathology, trauma

    • Chest mass - cancer, diaphragmatic hernia

    • Anemia - caused by bleeding or red blood cell destruction

  • About 30% of Maine coon cats have a genetic mutation that makes it likely that they will develop hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This makes heavy breathing even more significant in this breed

  • Any cat that is breathing heavily should be checked over as a matter of urgency, if they are “panting” then this is a potential emergency

    • Keep your cat quiet and handle/move/stress as little as possible

    • Stress can result in respiratory arrest and death. These cats can really be on the very edge of survival

+ Full Transcript

Let's get into today's question.

Michelle asked the question today, and she simply wrote, “My small Maine Coon breathed heavily for 20 seconds. Is it serious?”

So really, “why is my cat breathing fast? Why is my cat breathing heavily?” is the underlying sentiment to today's question and is it something to worry about? So, heavy breathing is always going to be a bit of a worry in cats and the reason for this is that cats are really great at hiding signs of them being unwell, of them suffering from any kind of disease. And so, it might only be noticed when they are actually struggling kind of quite severely when they're almost on death's door when it comes to breathing heavily and that is not an exaggeration.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, a cat is brought to me in the vet clinic because the owners notice that their breathing is a little bit heavier. It is a little bit labored. Maybe they're just having a little bit of a hard time breathing or if they're panting. And that's even worse. Unfortunately, a lot of these times, the disease that's going on the underlying problem is really very far advanced.

So yeah, if your cat is breathing heavily at all, I would definitely be keeping a close eye on them. And I definitely would be thinking about getting them checked out by your vet as soon as you potentially can. Certainly giving them a call.

Now, it's even going to be more of a concern if they're breathing is not just heavy, but it's quite labored. There seems to be more effort and you can see that a lot of the time in cats if there is a lot of movement of their abdomen. So if their tummy is kind of going in and out, and that seems to be doing most of the work rather than the chest.

So breathing heavily, there's a number of different things that can cause that. A number of different diseases that can cause your cat to breathe heavily or to breathe fast. And some of those are completely normal.

So if your cat has just been exercising, if they've just been playing with their toy, if they've been chasing a laser that you've been pointing, kind of flashing around the room, then clearly they're going to be a little bit out of breath, especially if they're overweight or they're not used to getting regular exercise. And they're going to be breathing heavily.

If they get very frightened as well, the normal response there of the body, the kind of fight, flight or freeze response is to start that breathing rate to increase. So that's normal.

Pain is another cause of heavy breathing. That's something that clearly can be caused by lots of things. Maybe arthritis in an older cat would be pretty common there. Lung diseases next. So that would be things like asthma, and potentially cancer as well on the lungs, affecting the lungs, growing within the lungs itself.

And then one of the big causes that we see is actually fluid within the chest. So this is rather than fluid building up in the lungs themselves, it kind of fills up the chest cavity around the lungs. So the fluid that the lungs are normally kind of bathed in if you like, that increases massively in volume, and that really restricts the ability of the lungs to expand.

So we would call that a pleural effusion and the big causes of that a heart failure which is potentially relevant to Michelle’s Maine Coon as I come on to in a little minute. Also liver disease trauma can cause that as well. And if that fluid is actually puss, then that's an infection within the chest. And that's something that we’ll sometimes get with a cat bite to the chest or maybe even a grassy that's worked its way into the lungs. Maybe it's been breathed in and then could have popped its way out of the lungs into the chest cavity.

Air in the chest is another potential cause of breathing heavily in cats or breathing quickly in cats. And that can be due to some kind of lung pathology. Some trauma as well. And then there can be other masses within the chest. So that could be cancer again.

You could have something like a diaphragmatic hernia and that's where the diaphragm which separates the chest from the abdomen develops a hole. That's generally because of a road traffic accident being hit on the road by car or another traumatic incident. That hole then allows the intestines to move from the abdomen into the chest.

So that can be something that can be incredibly serious. And you would imagine that it would be serious all the time. But it's amazing. In some cases, cats can live with that condition for an awful long time. And it only becomes apparent that they've got this diaphragmatic hernia later on in life because they're being x-rayed for another reason.

And then breathing heavily and another thing could be something like anemia. So there’s actually a low number, reduced amount of red blood cells within the blood now. The red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. And if they can't do the job, then the body's natural response is to try and increase the rate of breathing so that they can kind of maximize the oxygen-carrying capacity of the remaining red blood cells.

So you can see, there are lots of different causes of heavy breathing and fast breathing in a cat. And some of those are incredibly serious. Some, you know, not too much to worry about if they've just had a fright, if they've just been running around. But a lot of them, there are things that you need to act on sooner rather than later.

Again, if it's pain, that's not great. But that in itself isn't a fatal condition. But a lot of the other ones, if they're not treated aggressively and quickly, then the chances of a successful outcome are pretty poor. And unfortunately, in some of them, the chances of a successful outcome anyway are going to be pretty poor, if not hopeless.

But the last thing you want to do is your cat to actually end up dying because they've suffocated, because either we've not really recognized that there's a problem, or we've not recognized the potential serious nature of the problem.

And I'd argue that any cat who's been breathing heavily that can't be explained because of normal reasons should be checked out as a matter of urgency. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean the middle of the night depending on the history and age and all that kind of thing of your cat, but it should be at the earliest opportunity in my opinion.

So why I say that heart disease is potentially a big issue for Michelle's Maine Coon is that about 30% of Maine Coon cats have an underlying genetic mutation that makes it much more likely that they will develop a form of heart failure called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. So that's one in three Maine Coon cats is going to be really prone to getting that form of heart failure.

So that's something to really keep in mind if you've got a Maine Coon cat, but equally heart disease, an undiagnosed heart disease is actually pretty common in the cat population, as well.

So if you've got a cat and you notice that they're breathing heavily, give your vet a call. Have a chat. Get them booked in to have a check over.

If they're panting, so if they're open mouth breathing, they're sitting with their mouth open, then that's really serious because cats generally don't pant. Normally, it can be a sign of severe stress and especially severe respiratory stress.

You might also find that they're sitting hunched. Their elbows are pointing out because that's trying to give the chest the maximum opportunity to expand and make use of what lung capacity they do have.

But while you're waiting or while you're taking your cat into the veterinarian, then keep your cat as quiet as possible. Handle them, move them, stress them out as little as possible because these cats are really on the edge and very small changes, very small increases in their stress level can result in them going into respiratory arrest. So stopping breathing altogether, and passing away.

So that really answers today's question, you'll appreciate that all of the different causes of breathing heavily are breathing quickly in a cat are going to require different investigations, different management strategies, certainly in an emergency situation, and in a long term treatment situation. And then they're going to have different prognosis as well.

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