Why Is My Cat Breathing Hard: Common Causes and Symptoms

This article is not designed to replace professional veterinary advice and should not be relied upon as such. All information is intended to motivate readers to make their own decisions after consulting with their pet’s health care provider. For more information please consult our medical disclaimer.

If you’ve noticed your cat breathing hard, you may be understandably concerned. While some heavy breathing in cats can be normal, such as after exercise or during periods of excitement, it can also be a sign of an underlying health issue. Understanding the reasons why your cat is breathing hard can help you determine if it’s time to schedule a visit to the vet.

In this article, we’ll explore reasons why your cat may be having breathing difficulties, and common symptoms of breathing issues in cats. We’ll also take a look at why it’s important to seek medical advice from your veterinarian, and discuss treatment options to help your feline friend feel better.

cream cat looking upwards with mouth open

Understanding Feline Breathing Patterns

As a cat owner, it is definitely worth understanding your pet’s breathing patterns. Knowing what is normal behavior and what is not can help you identify potential health problems early on. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Normal Breathing in Cats

Cats typically breathe between 16 and 40 breaths per minute. Their breathing should be regular and quiet. You should not be able to hear any wheezing, coughing, or other abnormal sounds. Additionally, their chest and belly should move in a rhythmic pattern with each breath.

Signs of Labored Breathing

If your cat is experiencing labored breathing, it could be a sign of an underlying health issue. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Open-mouth breathing: If your cat is breathing with their mouth open, it could be a sign of respiratory distress.
  • Rapid breathing: If your cat is breathing rapidly, it could be a sign that they are having trouble getting enough oxygen.
  • Nostril flaring: If your cat’s nostrils are flaring, it could be a sign that they are having difficulty breathing.
  • Abdominal breathing: If your cat is using their abdominal muscles to breathe, it could be a sign of labored breathing.

If you notice any signs of labored breathing, it is important to consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. They can identify the cause of your cat’s labored breathing and develop a treatment plan to help them breathe easier.

black and white cat with its mouth open

Common Causes of Hard Breathing

If you notice that your cat is breathing heavily, it could be a sign of an underlying health condition. Here are some common causes of abnormal breathing in cats.

1. Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and feline upper respiratory infections (URI) can cause heavy breathing in cats.

URI is a common viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract and can cause symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, and coughing. In addition to viral infections, pneumonia and bronchitis are bacterial infections that can affect the lungs and airways, causing breathing problems.

2. Heart Disease

Heart disease is another common cause of heavy breathing in cats. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is the most common type of heart disease in feline friends and can cause the heart to become enlarged and thickened, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively. This can lead to excess fluid buildup in the lungs, causing heavy breathing.

3. Asthma

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that can cause heavy breathing, wheezing, and coughing in cats. It is caused by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for the cat to breathe.

Asthma can be triggered by allergens such as pollen, dust, and cigarette smoke.

4. Allergies

Allergies can also cause heavy breathing in cats. Cats can be allergic to a variety of things such as pollen, dust, mold, and certain foods. Allergic reactions can cause inflammation in the airways, making it difficult for the cat to breathe.

white cat sitting in a cat carrier

Seeking Veterinary Care

If you notice your cat breathing heavily, it’s advisable to determine whether it’s a cause for concern.

In some cases, heavy breathing may be normal, such as after strenuous exercise. However, if your cat is exhibiting other symptoms or if the heavy breathing persists, it may be a sign of a more serious problem. Here’s what to look for.

Emergency Symptoms

If your cat is showing any of the following symptoms, it’s wise to seek emergency veterinary care immediately:

  • Open mouth breathing or gasping for air
  • Blue or gray gums or tongue
  • Collapsing or fainting
  • Struggling to breathe or breathing rapidly
  • Visible distress or panic when breathing

These symptoms may indicate a serious respiratory problem or other medical emergency, and it’s important to get your cat to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Scheduling a Vet Visit

If you spot your cat breathing heavy but not exhibiting any emergency symptoms, it’s still a good idea to schedule a veterinary hospital visit. Your vet can help determine the cause of your cat’s heavy breathing and recommend appropriate treatment.

When you call to schedule your appointment, be prepared to provide information about your cat’s symptoms, including when they started and whether they have worsened or improved over time. Your veterinarian may also ask about your cat’s medical history, diet, and lifestyle.

Remember, early intervention is key when it comes to your cat’s health. If you’re concerned about your cat’s breathing, don’t hesitate to err on the side of caution and contact your veterinarian.

white cat being treated by a veterinarian

Diagnosis of Breathing Difficulties

During your visit, your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and may recommend diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your kitty’s breathing difficulties. Based on the results of these tests, your veterinarian can make an accurate diagnosis of your pet and recommend appropriate treatment.

Physical Examination

During the physical examination, your vet will assess your cat’s overall health and look for any signs of respiratory distress. They may also listen to your cat’s lungs with a stethoscope to check for any abnormal sounds.

Your vet might also check your cat’s heart rate and rhythm to rule out any cardiac issues that could be causing your cat’s breathing difficulties. They may also check your cat’s temperature, as fever can sometimes cause fast breathing.

Diagnostic Tests

In addition to the physical examination, your vet may recommend diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of your cat’s breathing difficulties. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can help your vet determine if your cat has an infection or if there are any abnormalities in their blood chemistry.

  • Chest X-rays: X-rays can help your vet see if there is any fluid or inflammation in your cat’s lungs.

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound can help your vet check for abnormalities in your cat’s heart or lungs.

  • Bronchoscopy: A bronchoscopy involves inserting a small camera into your cat’s airways to look for any abnormalities.

Once your vet has identified the cause of your cat’s breathing difficulties, they can recommend a treatment plan to help your cat breathe easier.

grey cat lying on a blanket

Treatment Options

Treatment options will depend on the cause of your cat’s hard breathing. Here are a few common treatment options that your veterinarian may recommend:


Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to help relieve your cat’s breathing difficulties. These may include anti-inflammatory drugs, which can help reduce inflammation in the airways. Your veterinarian may also prescribe airway dilators to help open up your cat’s airways.

If your cat has an infection that is contributing to their breathing difficulties, your veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic to help clear up the infection.

Oxygen Therapy

In severe cases of breathing difficulties, your cat may require oxygen therapy. This involves placing your cat in an oxygen cage or administering oxygen through a mask. Oxygen therapy can help improve your cat’s breathing and provide them with the oxygen they need to recover.


In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat your cat’s breathing difficulties. For example, if your cat has a tumor or growth that is obstructing their airways, your veterinarian may recommend surgery to remove the obstruction.

Surgery may also be necessary to address certain congenital abnormalities that are causing your cat’s breathing difficulties.

man holding a tabby cat over his shoulder

Home Care and Management

If your cat is breathing heavily, there are a few things you can do at home to help manage the situation. Keep in mind that these tips are not a substitute for prompt veterinary care, and if your cat is having trouble breathing, you should always consult with a veterinarian.

Environmental Changes

One of the first things you can do to help your cat breathe easier is to make some environmental changes. If your cat is exposed to smoke, dust, or other irritants, it can make breathing more difficult. Here are some easy actions you can take:

  • Keep your home clean and free of dust and other irritants.
  • Use an air purifier to help remove allergens and other irritants from the air.
  • Avoid smoking around your cat, and try to keep your home smoke-free.

Stress Reduction

Stress can also make it harder for your cat to breathe. If your cat is stressed, it can cause their breathing to become more rapid and shallow. Here are some things you can do to help reduce stress:

  • Provide your cat with a quiet, safe space where they can retreat when they feel stressed.
  • Play calming music or use a pheromone diffuser to help your cat relax.
  • Avoid sudden changes in your cat’s routine or environment, as this can cause emotional distress.

By making these changes, you can help your cat breathe easier and reduce their stress levels. However, if your cat is still having trouble breathing, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

Prevention and Early Detection

Taking steps to prevent respiratory problems in your cat is a good idea if you want to avoid heavy breathing. Here are some ways to help support healthy cats:

Routine Check-Ups

Regular check-ups with your veterinarian can help detect any potential health problems before they become serious. During these visits, your vet will examine your cat’s respiratory system to ensure everything is functioning properly. They may also recommend specific tests or procedures based on your cat’s age, breed, and overall health.

Vaccinations and Parasite Control

Keeping your cat up to date on their vaccinations and parasite control is an important part of maintaining their overall health.

Vaccines can protect your cat from respiratory infections such as feline herpes virus and feline calicivirus. Parasite control can help prevent lungworm, heartworm disease, and other parasites that can cause respiratory issues.

By being proactive and taking preventative measures, you can help ensure your cat stays healthy and minimise the need for more serious medical interventions in the future.

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We explore the possible reasons why your cat is breathing hard, the importance of consulting with your vet, and treatment options available.

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