Updated November 20, 2021
One of the saddest things I see are cats with breathing difficulties. That’s because they’re almost always brought to the vet too late. In fact, by the time their owners notice, they often don’t survive the car trip.
Here I’m going to give you a very simple trick to recognise when a cat is struggling to breathe. If you do it successfully, your cat will probably be OK.
How To Tell If A Cat Has Breathing Problems
Unlike dogs who are regularly exercised, cats can hide respiratory distress for a long time. But there’s one thing they can’t hide: the fact that they are breathing faster and faster.
A sleeping or a resting respiratory rate greater than 30 breaths per minute is almost always abnormal. This is usually the earliest and most sensitive sign of breathing problems. The problem is that it isn’t natural for cat owners to notice.
This is often the only sign. However, sometimes you might also see:
- open-mouth breathing
- noisy, raspy or wheezy breathing
- frequent coughing or hacking
- obvious chest or stomach heaving
- upright, tense posture
Cats with breathing trouble usually can’t breathe when lying down. The picture above shows the typical posture of such a cat: hunched and upright, not relaxed.
In contrast, even young healthy cats can have rapid or heaving respiration, or even breathe with their mouth open. However, this should only happen for a few minutes after vigorous exercise, and never at rest.
How To Measure Resting Respiratory Rate
The trick is to understand that the rate of breathing changes with activity or stress. Therefore, it can’t be done just any time and you need to know what to look for.
Resting Respiratory Rate should be measured when your cat is at their most relaxed. They need to be unstimulated and preferably even asleep. This is when they are breathing at the slowest they can, and this is what you measure.
Now count the number of breaths over 60 seconds. Most cats have a normal value between 15 and 25, but this can be higher in hot conditions.
If you can’t see your cat breathing at all (but they are alive!) then the rate should be OK. Cats with respiratory issues usually have more laboured or heavy breathing which is easier to see.
What Causes Laboured Breathing?
These are the most common three reasons for a cat to be consistently breathing faster than 30 breaths per minute:
- heart disease
- chest infections
They all need urgent attention, but they all can be treated.
I’m not expecting cat owners to watch their cats breathing every day, but whenever you suspect a problem it’s a great thing to do. For certain cases (like cats with heart murmurs), it’s something I ask owners to do as an early warning.
By spotting a subtle increase in your cat’s respiratory rate, you’ll take what would have been a dire emergency and make it just another health problem.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.