Difficulty Breathing (Dyspnea) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Dyspnea is when a cat has difficulty inhaling or exhaling and isn't getting enough oxygen. 

• Signs include fatigue, breathing with an open mouth or flared nostrils, coughing, pale mucus membranes, and wheezy, squeaky, or loud breathing

• Cats with difficulty breathing often keep low to the ground and extend their head and neck forward

Dyspnea is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention

• Many conditions cause difficulty breathing, including allergies, asthma, heart failure, and buildup of fluid around the lungs

• A physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging are the first steps in diagnosing the cause of dyspnea

• Treatment and prognosis depend on the underlying condition diagnosed

• In many cases, cats require supplemental oxygen while diagnostics and treatments are in process

A Closer Look: What is Dyspnea in Cats?

Difficulty breathing is characterized in a few ways:

Acute or chronic: Acute dyspnea occurs suddenly, and is often due to trauma or an infection. Chronic dyspnea occurs due to an underlying disease and has a slow onset with progressively worsening symptoms. 

Intermittent or consistent: Intermittent dyspnea is occasional bouts of breathing difficulty between periods of normal breathing and could be asthma or allergy related. Consistent dyspnea is having constant or near constant trouble breathing. 

Expected or unexpected: If a cat has already been diagnosed with an associated disease or condition, such as congestive heart failure, it is expected that at some point they will experience dyspnea.  Dyspnea is unexpected in cats that have not been previously diagnosed with an associated condition.

Possible Causes

Difficulty breathing is caused by a number of diseases and conditions, affecting many areas of the body. Some general potential causes include:

• Infection- bronchitis, pneumonia or pyothorax• Immune-mediated issues- allergies • Neoplasia- cancer or tumors

• Parasites- lungworms or heartworms • Obstructions of the airways by foreign materials

• Cardiac conditions- congestive heart failure • Inflammatory diseases- asthma • Traumatic injury to the chest or throat

Risk Factors

Respiratory distress is rare in cats, but commonly occurs in association with conditions affecting the heart or lungs. Respiratory distress is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate medical care. There are many potential causes of dyspnea, ranging from easily treatable conditions to emergency conditions that require life-saving intervention. The prognosis of dyspnea is highly variable, and depends on the underlying cause. 

The risk of developing dyspnea changes based on certain factors. Older cats are more susceptible to conditions such as heart failure. Younger cats are more susceptible to respiratory infections. Short-faced (brachycephalic) cats have a higher risk of dyspnea due to the shape of their nose. Their short nose prevents them from inhaling enough air to maintain proper oxygen levels in the blood, particularly when stressed. On hot and humid days, the risk of developing dyspnea is further increased and paired with increased risk of heatstroke.

Testing and Diagnosis

If difficulty breathing is severe enough, a cat may need to be stabilized before diagnostic tests can be run. Stabilization usually consists of supplemental oxygen and removing any fluid accumulation from around the lungs.

Diagnostic tests may include:

• Physical examination • Blood tests • X-rays • Ultrasound of chest and/or abdomen • Fluid analysis • Allergy test

• Electrocardiogram (ECG) • Rhinoscopy, bronchoscopy, or endoscopy • Urinalysis • Biochemical profile

• Biopsy

Since there are many possible causes, treatment depends on diagnosis. Treatment may include:

• Intravenous or oral medication • Restriction of movement: cage rest • Antivirals • Corticosteroids

• Surgical intervention • Antibiotics • Thoracentesis (Removal of fluid build up)

Similar symptoms

There are times when a change in respiratory effort is normal, such as after exercise, or in excessive heat. If there is no association with a causal event, any changes in breathing require emergency medical attention.

Panting may be mistaken for difficulty breathing. Cats that pant are often anxious, stressed, or overheated. Panting stops if the cat is given a chance to cool down or rest. If panting continues, it may be related to dyspnea, and requires emergency medical attention.

Associated Symptoms

Difficulty breathing is often associated with other cardiac and respiratory symptoms, including tachypnea (rapid breathing).

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