Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats

Overview of Feline Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing)

Respiratory distress, often called dyspnea, is labored, difficult breathing or shortness of breath that can occur at any time during a cat’s breathing process, during inspiration (breathing in) or expiration (breathing out).

When your cat has trouble breathing, he may not be able to get enough oxygen to his tissues. Additionally, if he has heart failure, he may not be able to pump sufficient blood to his muscles and other tissues. Dyspnea is often associated with accumulation of fluid (edema) in the lungs or the chest cavity (pleural effusion). This fluid can lead to shortness of breath and coughing.

Below is an overview of information on Dyspnea in Cats followed by detailed information on the causes, testing and treatment of this condition.

Causes of Dyspnea in Cats

Intact (non-spayed) female cats are predisposed to breast cancer (metastatic mammary carcinoma). Younger animals are more likely to develop lung infections.

What to Watch For

Diagnosis of Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats

Diagnostic tests are needed to determine why your cat is having trouble breathing. Tests that may be performed include:

Treatment of Dyspnea in Cats

The treatment for dyspnea in cats depends upon the underlying cause. Often, treatment is initiated to help stabilize your pet and allow him to breath easier while tests are being performed to determine the underlying cause. This treatment may include:

Home Care

Dyspnea is usually an emergency. See your veterinarian immediately. When you first note that your cat is having trouble breathing, note his general activity, exercise capacity and interest in the family activities. Keep a record of your cat’s appetite, ability to breathe comfortably (or not), and note the presence of any symptoms such as coughing or severe tiring.

Optimal treatment for dyspnea requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical and may include the following:

In-depth Information on Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats

The causes of respiratory difficulty can be classified as follows:

A detailed list of potential causes of dyspnea include:

Mechanical Disorders Causing Airway Obstruction

Non-infectious Inflammatory Causes

Infectious Causes of Respiratory or Thoracic Disease

Other Causes

Lung Disorders

Tumors and Mass Lesions

Cardiac and Vascular Diseases

Diseases of the Mediastinum and of the Pleural Space

Diseases Causing Pleural Effusion

Diagnosis In-depth

A complete medical history and physical examination should be performed by your veterinarian. These diagnostic tests depend on the duration of signs, presence of other abnormalities, and what is found on your cats physical examination. They may include:

Diagnostic tests may include:

Your veterinarian may recommend additional diagnostic tests to ensure optimal medical care. These are selected on a case-by-case basis if indicated from the examination, prior test results or lack of response. Tests may include:

Treatment In-depth

Definitive therapy is always dependent on establishment of a diagnosis. Since there are numerous potential causes of dyspnea, it is necessary to identify a specific cause to provide optimal therapy. Goals in therapy may include improving heart function, preventing fluid accumulation, preventing further deterioration of the heart muscle and antagonizing chemicals and hormones produced in excessive quantities in dyspnea. Rarely is it possible to cure heart disease.

The most important causes of dyspnea in cats are valve degeneration and cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease). Definitive treatment likely would require valve replacement (which is rarely done in cats) or heart transplantation (not done currently).

Dyspnea caused by fluid accumulation in the sac around the heart (pericardial effusion) is not treated by drugs but instead requires drainage of the fluid or removal of a portion of the pericardial membrane. Congenital (present at birth) heart defects should be referred to a specialist for management.

Animals with respiratory distress must be handled with care because struggling can result in respiratory arrest.

Initial treatments may include: