Table of contents
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.
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).
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 (such as going to the vet) can cause your cat to hyperventilate. This is generally not serious.
Heat stress/heat stroke
Sometimes a cat will pant on a hot day too, this is a sign of heat stress and is warning to take steps to cool your cat down. If you notice any of the following, seek medical treatment immediately:
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 a number of 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).
- Asthma - An inflammatory disease of the airways which causes them to restrict, leading to breathing difficulty.
- Blood disorders (anemia) - Low red blood cells mean less oxygen is reaching the tissues.
- Bronchitis - Inflammation of the mucus membrane of the bronchial tubes.
- Fever (caused by pyometra, eclampsia/milk fever and other types of infections).
- Heart disorders - 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.
- Heat stress - A precursor to heat stroke. A cat who is overheating will pant to try and cool down. If your cat is panting on a hot day, it is important 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).
- Heat stroke (hyperthermia) is a life-threatening condition where the organs of the body begin to shut down as a result of exposure to high temperatures (such as on an extremely hot day, or when locked in a car).
- Hyperthyroidism - A benign tumour of the thyroid gland.
- Pleural effusion - Excess fluid that accumulates between the two pleural layers, the fluid-filled space that surrounds the lungs.
- Pneumothorax - Abnormal accumulation of air in the pleural cavity which is located between the lungs and the chest wall.
- Poisoning - There are many possible causes of poisoning in cats.
- Pain - It is not unusual for a cat in pain to pant, this may include when they are giving birth. Obviously, aside from giving birth, a cat in pain should be seen by a veterinarian.
- Shock - A medical emergency where there is a lack of blood flow, resulting in damage to the internal organs. Shock is more a symptom than a disease in itself and may be caused by a number of reasons such as poisoning, blood infection, dehydration and blood loss, to name a few.
- Breathing with the elbows sticking out from the body - This indicates that your cat is having difficulty breathing.
- Bright red tongue (possible heat stroke).
- Blue tinged mucus membranes (cyanosis) - Due to low levels of oxygen in the blood.
- Head and neck extended out in front of the body.
- Pale mucous membranes - Due to shock or anemia.
- Difficulty standing.
Your vet will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and look for other symptoms (such as those listed above). During examination he will listen to the heart and lungs for abnormal heart beat and lung sounds.
He may wish to perform some diagnostic tests including:
- Complete blood count - To check for infection, anemia, diabetes.
- Heartworm testing - A blood test to check for the presence of antigens or antibodies in the blood.
- Specific blood tests to detect elevated levels of the hormones T3 and T4 are performed in cats who are suspected of having hyperthyroidism.
- Abdominal ultrasound - To check for fluid around the heart or lungs, heartworm, and tumors.
- 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.
Treatment depends on what has caused panting. See articles listed above for further details on treating the specific cause and may include:
If your cat is experiencing difficulty breathing, your veterinarian will give him supportive care to make him more comfortable. This may include the following:
- Oxygen therapy.
- Medications to open up the cat's airways (bronchodilators).
- Cage rest.
- IV fluids to treat dehydration, if necessary.
Additional treatment will depend on the underlying cause and may include:
- Antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection such as pyometra and milk fever.
- Cooling down the cat (in the case of heat stroke).
- Thoracentesis is the removal of trapped air or fluid from the pleural space.
- Medications such as bronchodilators to treat asthma.
- Heartworm treatment depends on the severity of the condition. This may be supportive care, or in some cases worming medications to kill the worm(s). This comes with its risks as a dead worm can break apart and cause a pulmonary embolism.
- Treatment of anemia may include blood transfusions in severe cases and supportive care such as oxygen therapy.
- Treatment for poisoning may include having the stomach pumped, administration of activated charcoal to absorb any remaining poison, fluid therapy to control acidosis, anti-seizure medication (if necessary) and supportive care.
- Supportive care such as cage rest and fluid therapy.