Heavy Breathing Cat? Here’s What You Should Know.

We’ve all seen dogs pant, but it’s rare when you see a cat breathing heavy.

Unfortunately, when they do that typically means they are having some sort of respiratory distress also known as (dyspnea).

If you’ve ever seen a cat pant, it’s not much different than a panting dog, but there are some differences.

For example, when a cat pants they also tend to stand or crouch with their elbows bent away from their chest and their neck stretched out.

And there are a variety of reasons why a cat may pant or suffer from abnormal breathing.

In this article, Easyology Pets is going to focus on two specific problems. One being fluid in the chest (hydrothorax) and the other an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy).

In a later article I’ll touch on a few other conditions that can affect breathing like asthma.

For Starters Here’s What You Need To Watch For

Labored breathing (can include shallow, rapid breathing, as well as noisy breathing)

Cat’s will usually stand or crouch with bent elbows pulled away from the body and their head and neck stretched out.

There can also be additional signs…

Things like…

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy or reluctance to move
  • Hiding
  • Coughing (in some cases)
  • Bluish or purplish gums

The Primary Cause

When fluid accumulates in the chest it’s referred to as hydrothorax. This is when fluid builds up in the spaces between the lungs and the ribs or (pleural cavity).

Some of the most common causes of hydrothorax include Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), a ruptured thoracic duct, and congestive heart failure due to cardiomyopathy.

FIP is a viral disease that a cat can’t eliminate. This causes a build up of fluid in the chest and abdominal areas.

Like humans, a cat’s lymphatic system is designed to collect excess fluid from the body as well as some of the fat absorbed from the intestines. The thoracic duct then returns this fluid to the main circulation through its connection to one of the largest veins near the heart.

Fluid spills into the chest when this duct ruptures due to trauma or some other cause and can lead to difficulty breathing.

If a cat develops cardiomyopathy or an enlarged heart they can also develop congestive heart failure. This is when the heart can’t pump enough blood to keep up with demand. When this happens, it can result in an accumulation of fluid in the chest and lungs. 

Emergency Care

If your cat is having trouble breathing, there is very little you can do at home. If possible it’s best that you get your cat to the vet for immediate emergency care.

While on your way to the vet try to keep your cat calm and minimize stress as much as possible.

It’s also best to use a cat carrier allowing them to feel as safe as possible, plus it keeps you from further compromising their breathing while you hold them.

Veterinary Care

Your vet will immediately start your cat on supplemental oxygen, especially if they’re in distress and wait for them to calm down. Once your cat has retained their composure your vet will carefully examine your cat, listen to their heart and lung sounds and take a chest x-ray if they feel it’s needed.

If they do find that there is an accumulation of fluid in the chest cavity, they will remove it and analyze it. They will then draw blood and evaluate that too. If they suspect a heart condition, they may request your permission to perform an EKG or electrocardiogram and/or an echocardiogram.


The primary focus of treatment is the removal of the excess fluid and the prevention of it returning. Typically, the fluid is removed by placing a needle into the chest cavity and drawing out as much fluid as possible. Most cats will do just fine with this procedure. The more important part is keeping the fluid from coming back. It all depends on the cause of the fluid accumulation and the extent of your cats breathing difficulties.

For FIP, there is no current treatment approach that can eliminate the virus. The primary focus will be on minimizing the symptoms associated with the infection. Most vets will use glucocorticoids (steroids) to keep the infection suppressed, but this lasts only a short time and eventually the cat will succumb to the virus.

In the case of a ruptured thoracic duct, it may or may not be treatable. There are both medical and surgical options available and the results are variable.

For congestive heart failure, vets will typically prescribe medications like furosemide (a diuretic or “water pill”) and enalapril (improves heart function).

The primary goal of any treatment is to get your cat to a point where they feel well enough to eat and drink on their own. Also, most cats will be hospitalized for a few days when something like this occurs. They may also be put on an IV and receive various medications to help improve their breathing. In addition, ongoing oxygen support may be necessary.

Additional Causes

Besides the things we’ve already discussed there are other conditions that may cause your cat to breathe heavy. These include different types of trauma, tumors, hiatal hernia’s, diaphragmatic hernias, internal bleeding and various infections.

Ongoing Management

Most conditions that affect your cat’s breathing will most likely require ongoing treatment of some kind. Unfortunately, they also tend to lower life-expectancy too. FIP for one is the most dangerous and most cats succumb to FIP within a matter of months. Long-term the goal is to ease your cat’s distress and improve their overall quality of life.


The bad news is that there is very little that can be done to prevent many of these problems.

However, in some cases a nutritional deficiency may be to blame.

For example, some cases of cardiomyopathy are due to deficiencies of taurine, an amino acid.

And while most commercial cat foods are formulated to supply your cat with all of the nutrients they need, but you can buy supplements to ensure that your cat is getting everything they need.

There is also a vaccine available for FIP, however there are some controversies surrounding its use, your vet can tell you more.