Causes, Signs and Treatment for Feline Respiratory Distress

August 30th, 2016 by


While some symptoms and clinical signs can be given time to resolve before seeking veterinary care, there are certain signs that warrant immediate medical attention.

Respiratory distress, or dyspnea, is one of these critical conditions. Cats can be particularly guarded about showing signs of illness, so owners must be especially observant. 

 Signs of Feline Respiratory Distress:

– Open mouth breathing: Cats are obligate nose breathers. This means it is abnormal for a cat to breathe or pant through his or her mouth.
– Blue gums: This condition, called cyanosis, results from a lack of oxygen in the blood. It is important to note that serious respiratory distress may be present even if gums are pink.
– Rapid breathing or slow, labored breathing: The normal respiratory rate for a cat at rest is 20-30 breaths per minute.
– Exercise intolerance: Affected cats will experience fatigue after very short periods of activity.
– Coughing/Wheezing
– Nasal discharge
– Sitting with elbows pointed away from the body and/or the head extended downward and outward.
– Apnea: This is a complete lack of breath and a most critical emergency.

Causes of Feline Respiratory Distress:

While there are many possible causes of respiratory distress in cats, some of the most common include:

– Respiratory infections
– Asthma: This condition is particularly common in cats and tends to be more severe in the spring and summer months.
– Trauma/Injury: May result from an animal attack, fall, puncture wound, etc.
– Heart or lung disease
– Obstruction: Caused by foreign bodies or internal masses in the air passages.
– Electrical shock
– Exposure to smoke or toxins
– Heat stroke or heat exhaustion

What to Do If Your Cat Has Trouble Breathing

If you suspect your cat is experiencing respiratory distress, contact your veterinarian or critical care hospital immediately. They will be able to assess your cat’s specific symptoms and provide the best advice for home care or care during transport to the hospital.

What Will Happen at the Hospital

Your veterinarian will have to find the balance between relieving the dyspnea and determining its cause. Stress will only exacerbate respiratory distress and can result in respiratory arrest. In moderate to severe cases of dyspnea, diagnostic testing, and even a physical exam may be too stressful initially. These cats will need to spend time in an oxygen cage under constant, close observation until they are able to breathe more easily. If the patient is not breathing, a tube will be placed in the airway so that oxygen may be administered. Emergency drugs may also be administered to stimulate respiration and cardiac activity. 

Lyon ProCare Critical Care Units

The Lyon ProCare CCU assists animal health care professionals in providing the best oxygen therapy care to their patients. Our units were designed with leading practitioners to meet demanding needs of Critical Care and were proven by years of actual use in veterinary hospitals, emergency clinics, teaching hospitals, rescue facilities and zoos. 








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