Rapid Breathing (Tachypnea) - Cats

Summary

Rapid and/or shallow breathing (tachypnea) in cats is rare and sometimes difficult to spot. Cats are masters at hiding signs of illness and often show no distress even when exhibiting potentially serious symptoms like tachypnea. Repeatedly measuring a cat’s resting breathing rate is the best way to determine if they have tachypnea. 

The respiratory rate of a healthy cat varies widely, from 16-40 breaths per minute. Even when healthy, a cat breathes more quickly at some times and slowly at others, so it isn’t always easy to determine if a cat is tachypneic. Urgent veterinary care is indicated for a cat who consistently breathes more than 30 times a minute, even while resting or sleeping. If other symptoms are present, like appetite loss, lethargy, panting episodes, getting medical attention quickly is an even more pressing concern. 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 for tachypnea varies widely and is determined by the diagnosis. The outcome is similarly dependent on the diagnosis.

Guidelines

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, including but not limited to:

Heart disease: including congestive heart failure and heartworm disease

Respiratory diseases: ◦ Upper respiratory tract infections ◦ Asthma ◦ Pneumonia

◦ Feline heartworm associated respiratory disease (HARD)

Diseases of the thoracic space that result in the accumulation of fluid or air that prevents the lungs from expanding

Diaphragmatic herniaInjuries to any part of the breathing apparatus

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 the cause of 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

Rapid breathing is often observed along with:

• Difficulty breathing (dyspnea) • Coughing • Open-mouth breathing or panting • Exercise intolerancePale gums 

• Lilac or blue gums/tongue (cyanosis)  • Lethargy  • Decreased appetite or appetite loss

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.

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