We usually think of cats as masters of stealth. They tread so softly, and move so silently, that often we don’t even hear them coming.
But what about if they give their presence away by the sound of heavy breathing?
Is it normal for cats to breathe heavily sometimes, or does it mean there’s something wrong with them?
In this article, we take a look at the reasons why cats breathe hard, and when it calls for a trip to the vet.
Heavy Breathing Cat
Cats aren’t usually heavy breathers, but here are some of the most common reasons why it does happen:
Cats don’t pant to cool down in the same way that dogs do.
They’re more likely to find a shaded spot, and stay as still as possible, to avoid their body temperature increasing any further.
But if your cat is trapped in a sun room, or any other room which gets very hot during the day, they might resort to panting as part of a last ditch effort to keep themselves cool.
Some cats breathe more heavily after physical exertion.
This is partly a response to their core body temperature increasing through exercise.
And also an increased effort to get oxygen to their heart and muscles.
Some cats pant as a physical response to emotional stress.
Heavy breathing due to stress can usually be identified by looking at what’s happening to your cat – they’re usually somewhere they find uncomfortable, such as the vet or groomer.
They might also be showing other signs of stress, such as drooling, and try to escape.
Cats go out of their way to conceal physical pain, since advertising it would make them vulnerable to predators, or rival cats.
Changes in breathing are often a tell tale sign that a cat is in pain – especially if they increase when the painful area is touched or manipulated.
Their breath might get more rapid and shallow, or become heavy panting.
Besides pain caused by a traumatic injury, several chronic (slow onset) and acute (sudden onset) illnesses can cause cats to breathe heavily.
- congestive heart failure – which causes fluid to build up inside the lungs
- respiratory infection
- and anemia.
6. Trapped foreign objects
Cats who have accidentally swallowed or inhaled something they can’t dislodge (like a bone, piece of grass, or bit of toy), might breathe in an irregular, heavy way.
Brachycephaly is the technical word to describe a skull with very short jaws, which make the face look very flat.
Persian cats and Exotic Shorthairs are both brachycephalic cat breeds.
It’s not a natural feature – it’s created by humans deliberately selecting cats for flatter and flatter features.
But unfortunately the resulting bone structure is not healthy. Soft palate tissue which usually fits inside the mouth can end up pushed backwards into their throat, and stifle the movement of air.
Which can result in noisy, heavy sounding breathing.
Being overweight isn’t usually a reason for a cat to breathe heavily by itself.
But it can make any of the other reasons above worse.
Why Is My Cat Breathing Heavy?
Some of the reasons why your cat might be breathing heavily are easily recognizable, by looking at the context.
A fit young cat who pants at the vet clinic but nowhere else is likely to be stressed.
A flat faced cat who breathes heavily a lot of the time is likely to do so because of the shape of their airways.
But other causes of heavy breathing in cats are more ambiguous.
If you can’t tell why your cat is breathing heavily, or if their breathing has changed, ask a vet to examine them.
My Cat Is Breathing Heavy
It’s not normal for a healthy, relaxed cat to breathe so heavily you can easily hear them.
So if your cat is, then it’s time to work out why, and take steps to fix or manage it.
The right thing to do next will depend upon why your cat is breathing heavily in the first place.
Heatstroke brought on by an extended period in a hot environment is a very serious condition.
In fact the consequences can be so severe, that it’s always better to err on the side of caution.
If you get home and your cat is panting in the sunroom, don’t try to work out how long it’s been that hot in there.
Move them to another room, and offer them a drink of room temperature (not cold!) water.
And call their vet. Always call their vet.
This is more flexible.
A cat simply recovering their breath from a chase or a scrap with a rival cat will recover swiftly.
But keep them under observation – if they go on panting, it could be a sign that they sustained an injury, and need a vet.
Seeing your cat visibly stressed is hard.
It’s even harder somewhere like the vet or the groomer, where we can’t explain to them that they’re safe, and the visit will do them good.
Some cats cope better wearing a collar infused with feline facial pheromone, which has a calming effect on them.
If your cat responds to catnip by getting all zen-like and relaxed, then this might be an option at the groomers too.
Ask your vet about using it before a trip to see them though, because it might interfere with making a diagnosis.
Flat faced cats breathing heavily need veterinary attention.
In some cases, surgery is required to remove excess tissue blocking their airways.
In the meantime, protect flat faced cats from breathing difficulty by making sure they have access to shaded, well ventilated places, and keeping them at a healthy weight.
Pain, illness and trapped foreign objects
Heavy breathing is most likely to be due to one of these things if you can’t attribute it to any of the other causes on our list.
If your cat is experiencing sudden or slow onset heavy breathing, and you can’t tell why, take them to the vet.
Cat Breathing Hard
So as we’ve seen, there are many reasons why a cat might breathe heavily or appear to pant.
Sometimes it is a normal, short lived reaction to exercise or stress.
But it can also be a sign of something more serious.
If you’re ever uncertain why your cat is breathing heavily, it’s always best for peace of mind to get them checked over by a vet.
Does Your Cat Breathe Heavily?
Do you know why? How do you manage it to keep them comfortable?
Let us know in the comments box down below!
References And Further Reading
Dyspnea (Difficulty Breathing), Cornell Feline Health Center, accessed July 2020.
Padrid, Feline Asthma, Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 2000.
Reinero & DeClue, Feline Tracheobronchial Disease, BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Cardiorespiratory Medicine, 2010.
Farnworth et al, Flat Feline Faces: Is Brachycephaly Associated with Respiratory Abnormalities in the Domestic Cat? Plos One, 2016.