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

  • Heart disease or heart failure
  • Lung disease
  • Tumors or cancer in the lung or which press on the airway
  • Infections such as pneumonia)
  • Obstructions that occlude the airway
  • Trauma
  • Bleeding into the lungs or chest
  • Abnormal fluid accumulation in/or around the lungs from various causes including heart and lung disease

    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

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

    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:

  • A complete medical history and physical examination with emphasis on stethoscope examination (auscultation) of the heart and lungs
  • A chest radiograph (X-ray)
  • Measurement of blood pressure
  • An electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Ultrasound examination of the heart (echocardiogram)
  • Laboratory (blood) tests
  • 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:

  • Hospitalization with administration of oxygen
  • Minimizing stress
  • Thoracentesis, which is drainage of fluid that has accumulated around the lungs (pleural effusion) with a needle
  • Diuretics. A “water-pill” such as the drug furosemide (Lasix®) or spironolactone may be administered or prescribed
  • Combination drug therapy. If heart failure is suspected, treatment with oxygen, a diuretic such as Lasix, and nitroglycerine ointment is often initiated
  • The drug digoxin (Lanoxin®, Cardoxin®) may be prescribed in some situations
  • 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:

  • Never withhold water, even if your cat urinates more than normal, unless specifically instructed to do so.
  • Administer all veterinary prescribed medication as directed and be certain to alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your cat.
  • Schedule regular examinations with your veterinarian. This will include an interview regarding your pet’s clinical symptoms and quality of life. Be prepared to answer questions about your pet’s activity, appetite, ability to sleep comfortably, breathing rate and effort, coughing, exercise tolerance and overall quality of life.
  • Bring your medications with you to show your veterinarian. Dosing is critical for heart medication. If your pet is on digoxin, your veterinarian may want to measure levels of that drug in the blood to make sure that the appropriate amount is being administered.
  • In-depth Information on Dyspnea (Trouble Breathing) in Cats

    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


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