Why is my cat breathing so fast and shallow?

If your cat is breathing fast, it’s easy to panic - what could be causing this, and is it an emergency? Our Edgewater vets describe what’s considered rapid breathing, explain symptoms and potential causes, and provide insight on when to call a vet. 

Why is my cat breathing fast?

Rapid breathing in cats is also known as tachypnea. First, let’s establish what a healthy respiratory (breathing) rate for a cat is. They’d usually take between 20 to 30 breaths per minute.

Count the number of breaths your cat takes while resting to determine his or her resting respiration rate. Inhaling (when the chest rises) and exhaling are both parts of one breath (when the chest falls). It is critical that your cat is not purring when you are counting its breathing rate. Their resting breathing rate is usually slightly lower than their sleeping rate.

Time them on your phone or a watch to count how many breaths happen in that 30-second period. Then you’ll multiply the number of breaths you counted by two to arrive at the number of breaths your cat takes in one minute.  

Causes of Fast Breathing in Cats

Fast breathing in cats may indicate a number of injuries or illnesses and should be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible. Some potential causes include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Allergies
  • Exertion
  • Anemia
  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Pain, stress, or shock
  • Heat
  • Heartworm
  • Tumors in the throat or chest
  • Respiratory infection
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood (hypoxemia)
  • Low levels of red blood cells (anemia)
  • Asthma
  • Pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid)
  • Bleeding into lungs
  • Foreign objects lodged in windpipes or other airway obstruction
  • Trauma, exposure to toxins, or injury
  • Pleural effusion (abnormal buildup of fluid in the chest cavity)

Signs of Fast Breathing in Cats

If your cat is breathing rapidly, you may notice several signs, including:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • The belly and chest are both moving with each breath
  • Loud breathing
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Gagging
  • Coughing
  • Panting or breathing with an open mouth (like a dog)
  • Nostrils flaring
  • Rapidly rising and falling stomach or chest
  • Blue-colored gums

If your cat appears to be breathing faster than usual, look for and eliminate any factors that may be contributing to the condition. For example, if your cat has been outside in the hot sun, or if emotional distress or anxiety is present, immediately relocate him to a cooler, quieter location. Make certain he has plenty of water to drink.

Breathing rate is an indicator of overall health - if your cat is suddenly breathing fast while sleeping (consistently more than 30 breaths per minute), this could be an early clinical sign of heart failure. Your cat breathing fast and not eating could be a sign of dyspnea. Lower rates may be no cause for concern provided your cat breathing fast but is otherwise normal.

Also note that for some cats, your vet may consider rates lower than 30 breaths per minute as increased and abnormal - the right breathing rate for your cat should be assessed on an individual basis.

Your vigilant observations can help limit how ill your pet gets, reduce his or her chance of needing overnight hospital stays and help reduce costs related to the treatment of heart failure.

What to Do If Your Cat is Breathing Fast

If you notice that your cat's breathing is consistently fast after observing it for a couple of hours, please contact our veterinarian as soon as possible so that they can advise you on the next steps to take. Your cat may only require a medication adjustment.

If you see other symptoms along with a faster sleeping breathing rate or symptoms have become worse, this may be a medical emergency.

Diagnosis of Fast Breathing in Cats

Your veterinarian will evaluate the severity and stage of your cat's rapid breathing, listen to its chest for evidence of a heart murmur, fluid in the lungs, or other causes, and examine the color of your cat's gums to determine whether the organs are receiving adequate oxygen.

Your kitty will also be stabilized and provided with a steady supply of oxygen. Blood tests will be performed to check for underlying illnesses or diseases, then x-rays and/or ultrasounds will be done to examine the heart and lungs. At our hospital, we use in-house diagnostic tools to provide the most accurate diagnosis of medical conditions and customize treatment plants to the needs of your pet. 

Treatment of Fast Breathing in Cats

Along with the steady supply of oxygen, an IV catheter may be placed so emergency drugs and fluids can be administered intravenously.

Of course, treatment will be determined by the problems your cat is having. Fluid from the chest will be removed and analyzed in the case of pleural effusion. If a heart disease is suspected, an echocardiogram and x-rays of the heart may be performed. These can reveal the size and function of the heart.

If your cat is in respiratory distress, remain as calm as possible. If your cat finds traveling stressful, your vet can give some tips on transportation.

If you think your cat is breathing rapidly, this can be an emergency. Always have your cat evaluated by a trained veterinarian at the first sign of rapid breathing.

If the rapid breathing resolves after a few minutes, start to record details of the duration of the episode, what was happening before and after, and the date these occurred to share with your veterinarian. These keen observations can help narrow down potential causes and define triggers.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your cat is breathing fast or is displaying other concerning symptoms, contact our Edgewater veterinary hospital right away.