Dogs pant. Cats don't. Or do they?

If you see your cat breathing heavily, with great effort, erratically, or panting (opened-mouth breathing), it is indeed worth exploring further. Abnormal breathing in felines can have various causes, and you should review them one by one. Sometimes, fast breathing in cats is no major concern, while it might also indicate serious health issues. Read on to find out what heavy breathing in felines looks like, what might cause it, and how concerned you should be.

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Dyspnea in Cats

If your cat is panting or breathing heavily, it could signal that they have dyspnea. Have you heard of it before? Technically, according to Cornell's University College of Veterinary Medicine, it is not a disease. It is more of an umbrella term indicating many different feline health disorders, mostly related to difficulties with inhaling and exhaling. Another frequently used definition for heavy breathing in cats is respiratory distress.

You should be concerned if your cat appears to be frightened by the change in their breathing, drooling or coughing while breathing, or struggling to get a breath. Let's dive deeper into what labored breathing in felines looks like.

What Heavy Breathing in Cats Looks Like

Generally, you are not supposed to really notice your cat breathing. If you see your cat breathing heavily, it might be connected with stress, anxiety, or overheating. Sometimes, felines may also display labored breathing, which strongly resembles cat panting. Labored breathing in cats looks a lot like panting in dogs.

While it is OK for a cat to pant like a dog, this behavior must be infrequent and not accompanied by flaring nostrils and other worrying symptoms. For instance, if you see your cat panting after playing during a warm summer day, which lasts for a few minutes and is irregular, it is generally not a worrying sign.

There are several signs to look for that your cat is in respiratory distress. A few of the most common include:

  • Standing or crouching with elbows splayed and the head and neck stretched away from the body
  • Tachypnea (increased respiratory rate, up to 40 breaths per minute)
  • Shallow, short, noisy, or particularly raspy or rattling breaths
  • Regular breathing with mouse open
  • Blue or purple gums (which might indicate your cat can't get enough oxygen)
  • Accompanying behavioral changes like hiding, loss of appetite, or lethargy

If your cat shows any of these signs, contact a veterinarian as quickly as possible for a thorough evaluation. As many pet issues can be solved with an online vet consultation, feel free to ask any pet-related questions that are bothering you any time you want with 24/7 Online Vet by Petcube.

The Causes of Heavy Breathing

Alright, but why do cats pant, exactly? What causes difficulty breathing, and how to eliminate such stressors preventively? Many things can cause your cat's breathing to change, some serious, some not so much.

Before I start naming the causes, I want to emphasize that even if we know them, we cannot always see the signs of these diseases on our own.

Sometimes owners think that this is the norm or simply don't have time to look at what's going on with the cat because they have to work.

So I have one solution to this problem for pet parents. Petcube Care will give you the opportunity to watch your cat live, even from the office and at night. This is an optional subscription service that adds features to a pet camera. With these features you can even save videos of your pet's day and watch them later. Then if your cat has breathing problems, you can watch a video of their day and track when they are short of breath more often and what causes it.

Also, if you suspect that something is wrong with your cat, you can send a video recording of your cat breathing heavily to your veterinarian. Your vet will be able to see exactly what the problem is and make an appointment.

Singular events

Why do cats pant without other symptoms? Some breathing problems in cats are caused by a singular event, such as a fall, blunt force trauma, or staying in heat for too long. Uncommonly, panting can simply be induced by pain, stress, or shock accompanying some kind of traumatic event.

You should still remember that a panting cat is much rarer than dogs, even when stressed or shocked. It means you should immediately consider what your feline friend experienced right before exhibiting panting. Also, this type of panting will go away once your cat has a chance to rest and calm down for a few minutes.

But if your cat is not stressed, asthmatic, or has allergies, you should consider other heavy breathing causes in felines.


Some cats have asthma (just like humans!), making breathing more challenging for all felines. For asthmatic cats, such symptoms as difficulty breathing, open-mouthed breathing, or coughing are quite common.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

One of the possible causes of heavy cat breathing is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This cardiac disease means that a cat’s heart is enlarged, pumping more blood, thus accumulating fluid in a cat’s chest or lungs.

Except for open-mouthed and hardened breathing, cats with an enlarged heart might also show signs of lethargy. Beware that an enlarged heart can also lead to congestive heart failure, which is also characterized by difficult breathing. If you have any suspicion that your feline friend has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, consult with a vet to conduct echocardiography and discuss further actions.

Feline infectious peritonitis

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a viral disease caused by a feline coronavirus, which we mentioned in our article on coronavirus in pets. FIP develops quite rapidly, showing the signs of appetite loss, weight loss, depression, and fever. Because of its rapid development, cats can accumulate fluid in the abdomen, which also makes it complicated to breathe normally.

Respiratory infection

It might also be possible that your cat is panting or has difficulty breathing because of a feline upper respiratory infection (URI). This infection is inflicted by bacterial agents, whereas its common symptoms are sneezing, conjunctivitis, and nasal congestion.

Yet, as specified by VCA Hospitals, in severe cases of respiratory infection, felines can experience difficulty breathing. If your cat shows difficulty breathing and one of the mentioned symptoms, call your vet immediately.

Other causes

Note that some other heavy breathing causes in cats include pneumonia, tumors, infections, and bleeding. Some cats can suffer breathing effects due to heartworm disease.

Allergic reactions, particularly anaphylactic ones, are also to blame for some breathing problems. Since it's generally complicated to diagnose these causes on your own, heading straight to a qualified veterinarian is a must. To rule out any immediate and pressing dangers to your cat's wellbeing, any breathing problems should be assessed by a vet as soon as possible.

Otherwise, it will lead to a situation where you won't be able to cope with your pet's condition on your own and the clock will be ticking for seconds to save them. In such emergencies, it's a good idea to have pet insurance for all your four-legged family members.

Alternatively, you can subscribe to the Pet Emergency Fund, which can insure them for less than $1 per day and cover your pet's medical bills in an emergency. This alternative insurance also gives you access to a certified veterinarian 24/7 who will be happy to answer any questions you may have about your dog or cat wherever you are. We, in turn, are pleased to offer our readers an exclusive 27% discount. Click here to get your special discount.

Treating and Preventing Heavy Breathing in Cats

Treatment for difficult feline breathing can vary. It depends on the cause of this problem, you have already read above that there may be many of them. FIP, for instance, can cause fluid to accumulate in the chest, resulting in troubled breathing; a vet should monitor viral infections in case dehydration or other side effects set in.

On the other hand, identifying a foreign body in your cat's airway or a tumor in your cat's chest will necessitate entirely different treatment plans. I follow the strategy that prevention of heavy breathing is better than treatment. If you comprehensively take care of your cat's health and regularly visit the vet, you can recognize the first signs of breathing problems. Knowing your cat's normal behavior is the first step in identifying when something is out-of-whack.

The easiest method is to check the respiratory rate on your own by simply counting breaths a few times to ensure that the results are consistent.
Mind that a normal cat’s respiratory rate is 15-30 breaths per minute while resting or sleeping. If you see more than 30 breaths per minute, accompanied by other worrying symptoms, such as lethargy, blue gums, or hiding, you should contact a vet immediately.

The best pet parents are attentive parents. Pay attention to the peculiarities and deviations of your cat.. Keep the heartworm, flea, and tick prescriptions current. Remember that a cat is not only fun with games and soft paws, but also responsible. Your pet can rely only on you.

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