Rapid Breathing (Tachypnea) in Cats

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Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

Rapid and/or shallow breathing (tachypnea) in cats is rare and sometimes difficult to spot.

  • The respiratory rate of a healthy cat varies widely, from 16-40 breaths per minute
  • Urgent veterinary care is indicated for a cat who consistently breathes more than 30 times a minute, even while resting or sleeping
  • Cats with pale or blue gums (cyanosis), or who are clearly struggling to breathe (dyspnea) need emergency care
  • Temporary rapid respirations are normal under some circumstances, like when a cat is stressed, anxious, or has just exerted itself
  • The symptom of tachypnea occurs in response to potentially serious conditions, such as, asthma, respiratory infections, and heart failure (among others)
  • Diagnostic tests like a physical examination, bloodwork, chest X-rays, and echocardiogram are useful for diagnosing the underlying cause of tachypnea
  • Treatment and prognosis for tachypnea varies widely and are determined by the diagnosis
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A closer look: Rapid Breathing (Tachypnea) in Cats

Tachypnea is not common in cats, but respiratory issues are always an emergency until they’ve been diagnosed and proven otherwise. Asthma and heart disease are two of the most common causes of tachypnea in cats, and these (among other conditions associated with tachypnea) have the potential to be life-threatening.

Possible causes

Tachypnea is caused by a variety of conditions.

Any disease that causes anemia also has the potential to produce tachypnea. Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissue, so when a cat is short on red blood cells for any reason, they breathe faster to make up for that lack of oxygen.

Risk factors

Fast breathing in a cat varies in intensity and consistency.

Cats diagnosed with chronic conditions like asthma or congestive heart failure are expected to have transient episodes of tachypnea from time to time. Even though this doesn’t necessarily indicate an emergency within the context of having a pre-existing condition, it suggests suboptimal management of the disease.

Testing and diagnosis

A variety of procedures are used to diagnose tachypnea:

  • Physical examination
  • Bloodwork
  • Analysis of fluid from the chest cavity and/or respiratory tract
  • X-rays
  • Heart ultrasound (echocardiogram)

Treatment of tachypnea varies based on diagnosis. Examples include:

  • Bronchodilators for asthma
  • Cardiac medications for heart disease
  • Time and nursing care for viral upper respiratory tract infections
  • Antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • Glucocorticoids for immune-mediated hemolytic anemia
  • The anti-malarial medication primaquine for babesiosis
  • Thoracocentesis to remove fluid in the chest cavity

Similar symptoms

Tachypnea is self-evident, measured by monitoring the respiratory rate of a cat at rest and over time. While it is sometimes difficult to determine tachypnea is present in subtle cases, it is not easily mistaken for other symptoms.

Associated symptoms

Tachypnea is often subtle in cats. A good strategy for identifying respiratory distress is to look for breathing movements at the cat’s abdomen instead of its chest. Cats with difficulty breathing or rapid breathing often move the sides of their bellies with each respiratory effort.


Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP - Writing for Veterinary Partner
S.Y. Gardner - Writing for Veterinary Partner
No Author - Writing for Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Roger Gfeller, DVM, DACVECC; Michael Thomas, DVM; Isaac Mayo; The VIN Emergency Medicine Consultants - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Caroline C. Tonozzi, DVM, DACVECC - Writing for MSD Veterinary Manual
Ned F. Kuehn , DVM, MS, DACVIM - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Dr. Bari Spielman - Writing for PetPlace

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