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Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats

By: PetPlace Veterinarians

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The causes of respiratory difficulty can be classified as follows:

  • Infections. Pneumonia or infection of the lung can lead to symptoms that are similar to those of dyspnea. Heartworm disease, a parasitic infection of the heart and blood vessels of the lung, must be excluded as a possible diagnosis. This infection can lead to lung injury as well as dyspnea.

  • Inflammatory diseases of the lungs and airways such as chronic bronchitis. This is similar to a smoker's cough. The cause of most feline bronchitis is not known but treatment is different than for other causes of dyspnea.

  • Lesions causing airway obstruction or compression

  • Trauma

  • Diseases of the lung tissue. These include edema, hemorrhage, pneumonia, cancer and fibrosis.

  • Tumors of the mediastinum, which is the area between the left and right lungs. These tumors can cause symptoms that resemble those of dyspnea.

  • Fluid surrounding the lungs (pleural effusion). When fluid accumulates within the chest cavity, it can cause shortness of breath. Pleural effusion is a common problem in cats.

  • Diseases of the heart and blood vessels of the lungs.

  • Other causes of altered respiration include: metabolic diseases, neurologic disease, steroid or drug (for example, phenobarbital) administration, ingested toxins and drug reactions.

    A detailed list of potential causes of dyspnea include:

    Mechanical Disorders Causing Airway Obstruction

  • Obstructed nostrils or nasal cavity

  • Pharyngeal (throat) disorder, such as post-nasal drip, overlong soft palate, pharyngeal polyps (cysts)

  • Hair, hairballs or foreign bodies

  • Laryngeal (voice box) diseases, including paralysis; granuloma, polyp or tumor; trauma; edema (abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues)

  • Aspiration of liquid or solid into the lungs

  • Tracheal (windpipe) diseases. Collapse or hypoplasia (incomplete development of trachea), foreign body, trauma/hematoma (blood clot), compression from thyroid mass lesion

  • Primary bronchial collapse (collapse of airways)

  • Bronchial compression from hilar lymphadenopathy

  • Bronchial foreign body

  • Trauma to the bronchopulmonary tree

    Non-infectious Inflammatory Causes

  • Bronchitis. Idiopathic (occurring without known cause), allergic

  • Bronchiectasis, which is chronic dilatation of the bronchi and bronchioles with secondary infection

  • Pulmonary granulomatosis, which is a collection of tumor-like masses in the lungs

  • Pulmonary infiltrates (foreign bodies in the lungs) with eosinophilia (collection of specific white blood cells in the blood)

  • Inhalation of noxious gases or smoke

  • Alveolitis (inflammation of the walls of the alveoli in the lungs) leading to pulmonary fibrosis

    Infectious Causes of Respiratory or Thoracic Disease

  • Viral, including infectious tracheobronchitis, viral pneumonia

  • Rickettsial infections, which is a type of parasite

  • Bacterial infections, including pharyngitis (infection of the voice box), tonsillitis (infection of the tonsils), bronchitis (infection of the breathing tubes/airways), pneumonia, lung abscess (growth, cysts and tumors)

  • Mycoplasma pneumonia

  • Toxoplasmosis, which is a contagious disease caused by a parasite

  • Systemic mycosis, which is any disease caused by fungi, including histoplasmosis, blastomycosis and coccidioidomycosis

  • Osleri osleri, including nematodes and traveling parasites

  • Lungworms

  • Larval migrans, which is migration of parasites through the lung

  • Dirofilariasis, which is infection with heartworms

    Other Causes

  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which is abnormal development of adult cells
  • Acidosis
  • Anemia, hypoxemia or hemoglobin abnormality
  • Neurologic (brain, spinal cord) lesions that alter ventilation
  • Neuromuscular weakness or disease
  • Rupture or paralysis of the diaphragm, including diaphragmatic hernia
  • Flail chest or rib fractures
  • Severe ascites or abdominal space occupying lesion
  • Drugs, such as steroids that may cause panting, phenobarbital, preservatives in injectables

    Lung Disorders

  • Pneumonia

  • Pulmonary edema from electrocution, airway obstruction, seizures, smoke inhalation, aspiration of gastric contents into the lungs, pulmonary embolism (the sudden blocking of an artery by a clot or foreign material), heartworm thrombus, drug reaction, uremia (an excess of waste products in the blood when the kidneys are not working properly) and DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation)

  • Pulmonary hemorrhage (heavy bleeding into the lung) from trauma; rodenticide coagulopathy, which is a disorder of blood coagulation due to ingestion of rodent poison; DIC; disseminated pulmonary neoplasia (tumor)

  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of lung tissue)

    Tumors and Mass Lesions

  • Nasal tumor
  • Pharyngeal/tonsillar tumor or polyps
  • Laryngeal tumor or polyp
  • Chondromatous hematoma of the trachea
  • Tracheal adenocarcinoma (cancer)
  • Lymphoma (cancer of lymphoid tissue) in the respiratory tree, lung, mediastinum or lymphatics
  • Thymoma (disease or cancer of the thymus)
  • Primary lung tumors (carcinomas)
  • Cardiac or heartbase tumors
  • Metastatic (pertaining to the transfer of disease from one organ or part to another not directly related to it) lung tumors

    Cardiac and Vascular Diseases

  • Left bronchial compression from left atrial dilatation
  • Left-sided congestive heart failure (pulmonary edema and/or pleural effusion)
  • Heartworm disease (canine)
  • Pericardial disease (disease of the sac enclosing the heart and the roots of the great vessels)
  • Heartbase tumors
  • Pulmonary thromboembolism (blood clot in the lungs)
  • Air embolism (e.g. with IV lines or urinary negative contrast studies)

    Diseases of the Mediastinum and of the Pleural Space

  • Mediastinal mass, which is a mass in the tissues and organs separating the two lungs, including lymphoma, thymoma and teratoma

  • Thymic hemorrhage

  • Hilar lymphadenopathy (disease of the lymph nodes) with bronchial compression. These include mycosis (any disease caused by fungi), granulomatous lung diseases, lymphoma and other neoplasms.
    Diseases Causing Pleural Effusion

  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Hydrothorax (fluid in the pleural cavity that encases the lungs and thoracic cavity)
  • Chylothorax (milky fluid in the chest)
  • Hemothorax (collection of blood in the chest)
  • Pyothorax (accumulation of pus in the chest)
  • Pneumothorax (entry of air into the chest)
  • Metastatic neoplasia (tumor)
  • Pleuropneumonia (pneumonia accompanied by inflammation of the pleura)
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Diffuse lymphatic dysplasia
  • Protein losing enteropathy (disease of the intestine)
  • Idiopathic pleuritis
  • Idiopathic pleural effusion

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