Cats are obligate nasal breathers. Ordinarily, a cat will breathe quietly and gently through the nose. If an older cat is wheezing and breathing heavily, there will be a medical explanation. Cats should be able to breathe freely while at rest.
An older cat may take a while to catch its breath after physical exertion. Heart problems lead to a diminished oxygen supply in the body. A bacterial infection could also make it harder to breathe. A cat can also develop asthma at any period of its life.
Heavy breathing in senior cats is not always a medical emergency. Your cat may just have overexerted itself, but we’ll explore the medical causes.
Why is My Senior Cat Breathing Heavily While Lying Down?
On average, humans take between 12 and 16 breaths per minute. A healthy cat will take closer to 30 breaths per minute. This rule does not apply when the cat is resting, though.
According to Respiration Physiology, a resting cat should take fewer breaths than a cat that’s awake. A sleeping cat should also not need to breathe as deeply.
If your cat has recently been active, it will be a little breathless. Senior cats tire much easier than younger felines.
Just walking to the litter tray can exhaust an older cat, especially if it has arthritis. Playtime will leave a cat huffing and puffing.
The cat’s breathing should return to normal after a few minutes. If this is not the case, it suggests that a medical issue is responsible.
There are three forms of heavy breathing in cats:
- Dyspnea (labored breathing)
- Tachypnea (shallow, rapid breathing)
This symptom table will help you to identify which kind of heavy breathing your cat is experiencing.
|Dyspnea||Noisy breathing, flaring nostrils, exaggerated chest movements, restlessness|
|Tachypnea||Mouth closed, discolored gums, exaggerated chest movements, lethargy|
|Panting||Similar symptoms to tachypnea, but with mouth open|
All three of these explanations can be serious. Any kind of breathing irregularity in a senior cat is a cause for significant concern.
1/ Dyspnea in Cats
A cat with dyspnea will breathe heavily and noisily. The mouth may be open or closed. The nostrils will also flare as the cat attempts to take in air through the nose. The chest of the cat will also rise and fall rapidly.
The most common causes of dyspnea are:
- Blocked throat
- Nasal problems
Dyspnea will leave a cat in great discomfort. This will make the cat restless. A cat with dyspnea will struggle to sleep and will likely become more vocal.
One of the main causes of dyspnea is a blockage to the throat or windpipe. Your cat may have food or a foreign object trapped in the throat. This, naturally, makes breathing difficult.
Not all throat blockages are related to foreign objects. Your cat may have inflammation or polyps in the throat. This, too, will make breathing problematic.
Any interference with a cat’s throat must be remedied. It is not only breathing that will be troublesome. Your cat will also be unable to eat or drink. This can quickly become a medical emergency.
Do not attempt to extract a foreign object from the throat manually. The one exception to this rule is a clear and direct emergency. For your cat’s safety, the obstruction should be removed by a vet using a laryngoscope.
As obligate nasal breathers, cats become distressed when the nose is blocked. This blockage may stem from a foreign object, a nosebleed, or an upper respiratory infection.
Some cats also struggle to breathe through the nose due to genetics. Undersized nostrils will restrict oxygen take in through the nose. The cat will breathe heavily and loudly, attempting to take in more air.
Check the nose of a cat with dyspnea. Shine a torch inside the nostrils, ensuring there are no signs of blood or blockages. If your cat’s nose is streaming, it is living with a respiratory infection. These concerns are more serious in senior cats, who have reduced immunity.
Respiratory infections are comparatively easy to manage. Your cat will be prescribed a course of antibiotics. Beyond this, your cat must stay warm and rest. Within a few days, its breathing should return to normal.
Heartworm is caused by parasitic worms that live inside the cat’s body. Heartworm symptoms range wildly and can be subtle or severe. One side effect is fluid in the lungs. This will make breathing difficult.
Heartworms are passed on by mosquitos. When a mosquito bites an infected animal, it consumes the larvae of heartworm. This can be transplanted to a cat when the same mosquito bites it. The larvae burrow into the cat’s body. They can reach a foot in length once fully grown.
Thankfully, heartworm is comparatively rare in cats. The feline body is not a natural host for this parasite. Often, the heartworm dies before it can do any damage. The flipside is that there is no cure. If the worm makes it to adulthood, the repercussions can be severe.
2/ Tachypnea in Cats
Tachypnea can be challenging to spot. The cat’s mouth will remain closed, and the breathing will not be as noisy as dyspnea.
The most visible symptom is deep, rapid chest movements. Check its gums too. They will be discolored and pale. This is due to restricted oxygen reaching the gums, which is a common cause of tachypnea.
A cat with tachypnea will become lethargic and easily fatigued. While these symptoms can apply to senior cats in general, they become more pronounced with tachypnea. The causes of tachypnea in cats include:
- Internal bleeding
An anemic cat will lack red blood cells circulating through its body. This will impact a cat, as red blood cells carry oxygen.
This will leave an anemic cat feeling lethargic and exhausted. Despite this limited movement, the cat will struggle to breathe easily.
Anemia is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of another concern. Senior cats most often develop anemia through kidney failure or cancerous tumors. Your cat’s anemia will be managed once the cause is treated.
Anemia is sometimes confused with hypoxemia. Hypoxemia occurs when a cat’s body does not generate enough oxygen to breathe freely.
Like anemia, hypoxemia invariably has an underlying cause that must be rectified. Left untreated, hypoxemia can lead to anemia.
Sepsis is a life-threatening condition. It is a form of bacterial blood poisoning. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association links tachypnea to sepsis.
The most common way to contract sepsis is through conflict with another cat. If a cat is clawed or bitten, bacteria can spread. If this reaches the bloodstream, this can lead to septic shock.
When a cat enters septic shock, multiple organs will be damaged. The kidneys and liver are most commonly affected. The cat will be in significant discomfort and will struggle to breathe.
If your cat is breathing heavily after a wound, have it checked by a vet. The mortality rate of untreated sepsis is very high. Antibacterial treatments and remedies may be required.
Asthma symptoms in cats vary from mild to severe. Just because a cat is not wheezing and coughing, it does not mean it is not asthmatic.
Most cats are diagnosed with asthma by the time they reach the age of 5. It can manifest in senior cats too, though.
As the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology explains, cats can become asthmatic seemingly at random. This is usually related to environmental allergies. Irritation through dust, smoke or parasites can cause asthma symptoms in cats.
The first time a cat inhales an allergen, antibodies will deal with it. If this allergen is inhaled again, the cat’s body recognizes it as a threat.
A domino effect follows, leading to swelling and inflammation in the airways. This makes breathing challenging, leading to tachypnea.
If a cat has experienced physical trauma, internal bleeding is always a risk. This is why an injured cat should always be thoroughly examined. X-rays and other scans will reveal hidden damage.
If a cat has internal bleeding, fluid will flood the lungs and heart. This will make breathing difficult. Your cat will be in some discomfort as a result of this. Eventually, the problem will become increasingly dangerous.
3/ Panting in Cats
Tachypnea is often interchangeable with panting. The key difference is that a panting cat looks similar to panting humans and other animals. The cat will breathe with its mouth open in short, rapid bursts.
There are many explanations for a panting cat. Panting may be a temporary concern that will right itself. It can also be a warning sign of a serious issue. The most common explanations are:
- Physical exertion
- Excess heat
- Heart disease
- Stress or overexcitement
Senior cats will pant when out of breath. It doesn’t take much to leave older cats breathless. Panting may become a regular occurrence.
It is important for senior cats to remain active. The more your cat moves, the longer it will be able to exercise without panting.
Activities most likely to leave an older cat panting include:
- Climbing a cat tree
- Grooming, especially in overweight cats
The panting should not last longer than a minute or two. The cat will catch its breath and revert to regular breathing. If the panting continues longer than this, pay attention. The cat is uncomfortable or unwell.
A cat’s body temperature should run at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be achieved by setting a room temperature to around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the Journal of Applied Physiology explains, hyperthermic cats take responsibility for their own comfort. Cats pant to regulate body temperature. The cat will also resist movement. This may look like resting, but it could be lethargy caused by dehydration.
Panting will not be sufficient to keep a cat safe in excess temperatures. You should also:
- Steer the cat away from direct heat sources, like radiators
- Encourage drinking water
- Offer frozen gravy ice cubes to encourage hydration
- Provide a cooling mat
If your senior cat is panting, lightly pinch the skin at the back of its neck. This is testing for dehydration, which can be dangerous in older cats. If the skin retains elasticity and snaps back into place, your cat is fine.
If this is not the case, the cat is dehydrated. Encourage the drinking of fluids and make an appointment with a vet. Your cat may need intravenous fluids. A dehydrated senior cat risks placing excess strain on its internal organs.
Panting can be linked to heart disease in a senior cat. Senior felines should be tested for heart issues at least once a year. Ideally, update these check-ups to twice annually.
Heart disease in cats is referred to as cardiomyopathy. There are four primary forms of this condition:
|Hypertrophic||Heart muscles thicken, reducing blood flow|
|Dilated||Weakens the muscles, enlarging the heart|
|Restrictive||The chamber of the heart does not fill up|
|Intermediate||A combination of 2 or of the above|
Sometimes, heart disease in cats is hereditary. This is especially common in the Maine Coon and Ragdoll breeds.
In other cases, there is an underlying medical cause. Hypertension, hyperthyroidism, and malignant tumors all affect the feline heart.
If your cat is experiencing heart disease, it will struggle to breathe. It will also be lethargic and weak.
This means that a cat will constantly pant while resting. A weak heart means that oxygen does not pump around the body sufficiently.
Stress or Excitement
A cat that is stressed or excited will pant. Stress is obviously more concerning. Excess excitement should also be avoided in older cats, though. As cats age, their hearts become weaker.
Avoid stress in your senior cat’s life by making it as comfortable as possible. Acknowledge and resolve any physical limitations the cat may have. Things that make a senior cat more secure and comfortable include:
- A warm, soft bed on the ground
- Low-sided litter trays in every room the cat uses
- Assistance with grooming
- A quiet place to sleep and hide
- A strict, unbending routine
Any pain will also cause stress to a cat. Senior cats often live with muscular aches and pains, including but not limited to arthritis. Treat these concerns with massage, supplements, and painkilling prescription medication.
As your cat ages, it may also become more jittery. Cats lose their vision and hearing as they grow older. The cat will be easily started until it adjusts to this. Make lifestyle changes to accommodate these circumstances.
Manage a senior cat’s exposure to stimulation, too. Instincts do not fade as a cat gets older. Your cat will still be stimulated by the idea of hunting. Close the drapes to restrict the view of birds outside if necessary. The cat may be in danger if it grows too excitable.
Heavy breathing is not normal behavior. Cats prefer to remain as quiet as possible. If your senior cat is breathing heavily while at rest, monitor its behavior and demeanor. You must learn if it is sick or just exhausted.