A cat receiving an exam at the vet to determine if they have fluid in their lungs.

How to Recognize Fluid in a Cat’s Lungs

Various medical problems can lead to shortness of breath in cats. Many cat owners associate breathing problems with fluid in the lungs, and ask for assistance in recognizing symptoms of this particular issue.

The medical term for the accumulation of fluid in the lungs is pulmonary edema. This condition can be caused by congestive heart failure, trauma, or an infection like pneumonia. In this article, we will review ways to spot breathing issues in cats and list possible causes for fluid in the lungs.

Spotting Dyspnea

Difficulty breathing (or shortness of breath) is commonly referred to by the medical term dyspnea. This can manifest in cats as an increased respiratory rate, increased respiratory effort (working harder to take breaths), open mouth breathing, and/or an abnormal posture to breathe. Cats that have fluid in their lungs or have difficulty breathing may sit with their head and neck extended and elbows back (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Cat with slight trouble breathing from fluid in lungs. This cat’s elbows are back and neck slightly extended. Some cats may have their neck extended even more as the difficulty progresses.

Difficulty breathing can occur at any point in a cat’s breathing process, either during inspiration (breathing in) or expiration (breathing out).

Figure 2. This cat is having severe trouble breathing due to fluid in the lungs related to congestive heart failure from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. His neck is extended, he is very weak, and he is open mouth breathing.

There are many different reasons for shortness of breath. When a cat has trouble breathing, they may not be able to get an adequate supply of oxygen to their tissues. For example, there can be airway problems from asthma, a foreign body in the airway causing an obstruction, an infection, accumulation of fluid (edema) in the lungs, bruising of the lungs (pulmonary contusions), or an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the chest cavity (pleural effusion).

Why Cat’s Lungs Fill with Fluid

Fluid in a cat’s lungs can be caused by several different diseases. These problems are either categorized as cardiogenic (caused by underlying heart issues) or non-cardiogenic (not caused by underlying heart issues).

Cardiogenic Causes

Non-Cardiogenic Causes

Asthma or Fluid in the Lungs?

There are many diseases that can be confused with pulmonary edema, one of which is feline asthma.

Asthma in cats, also known as “feline allergic asthma” or “feline allergic bronchitis,” is a lung condition associated with airway obstruction, typically caused by sudden narrowing of the bronchial tubes. These symptoms are caused by the spasmodic constriction of the bronchial tubes and increased production of secretions from the bronchial tree. Common symptoms in cats include coughing, difficulty breathing, increased respiratory effort, or wheezing. Some cat owners may confuse wheezing with fluid in the lungs.

How to Recognize the Problem

You can recognize fluid in your cat’s lungs by evaluating their breathing. Breathing issues are considered an emergency and cats struggling to breathe should be taking to their veterinarian immediately.

Signs of Fluid in a Cat’s Lungs

If you see any of the above signs in your cat, visit your veterinarian immediately.

Tests to Determine if Fluid Is in Your Cat’s Lungs

Tests to diagnose abnormal fluid accumulation in the lungs include:

Treatment of Fluid in Cat Lungs

Treatment of fluid in cat’s lungs will depend on the underlying cause of the fluid and location of the fluid.

Common treatments include: