Cat With Trouble Breathing? Here’s How To Tell

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
  • asthma

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.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. 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.

5 Replies to “Cat With Trouble Breathing? Here’s How To Tell”

  1. Hi! I live in Singapore and have been reading your very informative and helpful website.

    We adopted our first cat, a Persian Ragdoll 3 months ago after he was rescued. We took him to a vet, the next day after bringing him home, for vaccines and a general check up.

    He was estimated by the vet to be about 9 months old. He was found to have ear mites, fur mites, a retained testicle and stage 3 heart murmurs. Subsequently, he was diagnosed with Aortic Valve Insufficiency after an echocardiogram.

    We had planned to neuter him from the very start. At first, it was to avoid undesirable behaviours. Then it became apparent that it was the best for him, so as not to risk developing tumors in the retained testicle. From physical examinations, the vets were unable to determine where the retained testicle was.

    We are torn between putting him through the castration surgery and risk losing him now due to the anaesthesia risks involved due to his heart disease. Or just let him enjoy his life to the fullest, without having to go through surgery to avoid a tumour which may not even be there by the time his heart gives up. What should we do? Really appreciate your advice.

    1. Hi Reg. That’s a tough decision, and the answer will depend on how severe the heart disease is and the perceived risks of anaesthesia as well as the estimated lifespan. I apologise that only the vets who are managing your cat will be able to give you accurate advice.

  2. My 12 year old cat for sometime has been off and on stretching out coughing. I thought it was just hairball reaction. But about 6 weeks a ago she started rapid breathing that moved her whole body. I took her right away to the vet. He said without tests he was almost certain it was severe asthma. I couldn’t afford xrays then so he gave her seemed to help but 4weeks later she was doing it again I took her again and they gave her another shot. But the next day she stopped eating g and drinking and started breathing thru her mouth. I took her to ER and they said it could be tumors or anything for her quality if life they put her dowm. I am racked with quilt thinking she could have been saved


    1. I care for several outdoor ferals through out my town. I work a coalition to have the spayed and neutered and receive ALL their vaccinations. They are then released back to their outdoor families. I also build small approved houses and place them in out of the way places. We change the hay and spray once a month. My issue is. Taking in 3 brother cats to be neutered and they all died from a congenital heart disease. So unexpected?! How could they not know? Im not the vet. Im a foster care giver.

      1. Hi Mama. That’s so unusual that I have never seen or heard of anything similar, which leads me to wonder if the diagnosis was only suspected or confirmed in some way (like cardiac ultrasound or post-mortem examination). Without that, for something so rare that seemingly escaped detection three times, I wouldn’t be making too many conclusions as there could be another explanation. However, the article you’ve just read is an excellent way to get an early warning sign. But remember too that when a cat is taken to the vet subtle breathing problems become quite obvious with the addition of stress and so I struggle to see how it would’ve been possible to miss cardiac disease.

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