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Why is my cat breathing heavy?

While heavy breathing and panting is often associated with dogs as they do this to cool down, but this behavior isn't typical for cats. Our Harrisburg vets discuss reasons why your cat may be panting or breathing heavily and when to call your vet. 

Heavy Breathing in Cats

Dyspnea in cats, also known as difficulty or heavy breathing, is a common clinical sign that can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions. Cats experiencing dyspnea may exhibit symptoms such as open-mouth breathing, wheezing, or an increased respiratory rate.

Although it is normal for a cat to pant or breathe heavily in certain situations, it is important to be aware that this could also indicate a serious health issue that requires immediate veterinary attention.

When you observe your cat breathing heavily, the first step is to evaluate the situation and consider if any of the following circumstances could be a potential cause. If your cat is experiencing unusual or prolonged heavy breathing, it is important to seek veterinary treatment for your feline companion.

Normal Panting in Cats

Sometimes it's normal for a cat to be panting. Think about what your cat was doing or experiencing right before you noticed their change in breathing. 

Similar to dogs, cats may pant when they are anxious, stressed, overheated or after exercising. This type of panting should stop once your kitty calms down, rests or cools down. 

That said, this kind of panting is still significantly more rare for cats than it is for dogs. So, if you aren't 100% sure why your cat is panting, it's time to see your vet. 

Abnormal Panting in Cats 

If your cat isn't too warm, stressed and they haven't been exercised, heavy or labored breathing can point to a serious medical issue. Below, we'll list some of the medical issues that can cause heavy breathing in cats.


Cats may pant, wheeze, and cough due to asthma, which can also cause an increase in their respiratory rate. Cats with asthma can be treated effectively using medications like corticosteroids or bronchodilators.


Cats can experience breathing difficulties due to heartworm. Supportive care with corticosteroids is used to reduce inflammation, while oxygen therapy is administered in more serious cases of heartworm treatment. Keeping your kitty on monthly heartworm preventatives is crucial because heartworm disease can be fatal for cats.

Congestive Heart Failure

Fluid accumulation in and around the lungs may lead to symptoms such as deep, rapid breathing, coughing, and panting. Treatment may involve draining the fluid and administering medications to dilate blood vessels, eliminate excess fluid, and enhance the forceful contraction of the heart.

Respiratory Infection

Cats may experience difficulty breathing and exhibit heavy breathing when they have respiratory infections. Most respiratory infections are caused by viruses, but in some cases, a bacterial infection can develop, requiring the use of antibiotics for treatment. Using humidifiers and steam can assist in loosening mucus and improving nasal breathing as your cat recovers.

Should I bring my cat to the emergency vet if they are breathing heavily?

Yes, heavy breathing in cats can be a sign of a serious medical condition such as heart disease, respiratory infection, or even a blockage in the airway. It is important to seek immediate veterinary care to determine the underlying cause and provide appropriate treatment to ensure your cat's health and well-being.

What can I do to help my cat if they are breathing heavily?

If your cat is breathing heavily, it could be a sign of any of the serious medical issues mentioned above. It is important to take your cat to the vet as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis and treatment. In the meantime, make sure your cat has access to fresh air, keep them calm and comfortable, and monitor their breathing closely.

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 heavily, contact our Harrisburg vets at Colonial Park Animal Clinic immediately during our regular business hours, or a 24-hour emergency animal hospital after hours.

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