do cats breathe fast when in pain?
Cat Health and Wellness

Why is My Old Cat Breathing Heavily While Resting?

Breathing issues are common among senior cats. When they arise, your cat requires close monitoring and professional care. Because elderly cats can lack the immune strength to fight off infections and illnesses, heavy breathing when they’re relaxing should never be ignored.

Why does my cat have labored breathing? The causes of heavy breathing in senior cats include dyspnea, airway diseases, respiratory infection, pleural effusion (fluid buildup near the lungs), obesity, and physical trauma.  Breathing problems are typically a secondary medical symptom.

Similar to humans, breathing while relaxing should be steady and calm. Nothing extreme or aggressive, and certainly no panting. If your cat is panting, then there is likely to be a lack of oxygenation. Cats do not pant under normal, relaxed circumstances.

In this guide, we will explore the most common causes of labored and heavy breathing, as well as defining many of the more severe symptoms. We will then take a look at normal breathing habits and consider what is a healthy pace of breathing for cats.

Senior Cats and Breathing Problems

It’s not uncommon for older cats to have labored breathing from time to time. Because of the various aches and pains that senior cats often fall victim to, breathing issues can often be attributed to extreme discomfort. Just a run-of-the-mill day can be a real grind for a cat that’s 15 years or older.

Although a host of serious medical issues could be to blame, it’s important to acknowledge that pain is regularly a factor. While heavy and labored breathing can affect cats of all life stages, the situation becomes more complicated when it occurs in older cats.

Knowing the difference between the stresses and strains of the natural aging process and a serious medical issue is crucial.

What is Dyspnea?

Any form of significant respiratory distress is known as dyspnea. The most common symptom is panting.

Cats don’t pant unless something is negatively affecting their breathing. Additionally, panting in cats takes on a different visual as distress becomes obvious. Cats will either stand or hunch with their elbows pointed away from their chest with the head and neck stretched out.

Panting should never be ignored or dismissed, so consult your vet if this behavior continues or begins to worsen.

Symptoms of dyspnea may include…

  • The entire chest and belly area move when breathing
  • Breathing with an open mouth
  • Difficulty breathing in (inspiratory dyspnea)
  • Problems releasing air (expiratory dyspnea)
  • Loud breathing (Wheezing, sounds of discomfort, pain, etc.)

As a point of clarity, the symptoms noted above are only a small part of a much more extensive issue. Depending on your cat’s specific condition, many other symptoms may arise.

What are the Common Causes of Labored Breathing?

As a cat’s immune system begins to wear down, it can become susceptible to airway obstructions, disease, infection, and physical trauma.

Noted below are several of the most common causes:

Airway Diseases

Various diseases can impact your cat’s airway and make it difficult to acquire the optimal amount of oxygen. This can cause your cat to breathe hard and heavy as a means to compensate for a loss of oxygen.

The core trio of concerns are…

  • Pulmonary edema
  • Feline asthma
  • Pneumonia

The most complex and severe airway disease is pulmonary edema. Causing fluid to build within the lungs slowly, this condition can prove to be deadly. In senior cats, the most common cause of pulmonary edema is typically linked to heart failure, cancer or another disease that has compromised the immune system.

Upper Respiratory Infection

Although most every cat will develop an upper respiratory infection at one point or another, this type of infection can be quite severe for a senior cat. Eliminating the congestion as soon as possible is critical because elderly cats are no longer equipped with the strength, stamina, and general immune health to combat infections without assistance.

Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection may include…

  • Sneezing constantly
  • Coughing, hacking, and gagging
  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Snorting sounds due to nasal congestion
  • Discharge from the nose

cat breathing fast but otherwise normal

When congestion because severe, the inability to breathe through the nose can occur. If this happens, it becomes vital to hold the cat’s mouth open. Although this goes against a cat’s natural behavior, it must be done. Just a partial breathing space is invaluable.

Clear away discharge from the nose, mouth, eyes, etc. Using warm water and a clean cloth, gently remove any obstruction and debris. It’s possible that some breathing difficulty may be connected to prior discharge residing outside of the nose rather than congestion in real time.

As a means to open your cat’s nasal passages and loosen congestion in the nose and chest, consider placing your cat in a warm and humid environment. The use of hot water or a humidifier can prove beneficial.

  • If your cat begins to show signs of lethargy and a refusal to eat and drink you should consult your vet. If your senior cat has pre-existing conditions, it also becomes critical to seek professional care.

Although rare, some form of obstruction could be responsible for breathing troubles and infection. A foreign object or tumor can obstruct natural breathing while also causing secondary symptoms. Your vet will check the nasal passage and airway for any usual blockage.

Pleural Effusion

Labored and heavy breathing can be caused by a buildup of fluid that is centralized outside of the lungs. This area is known as the pleural space.

When fluid fills this space, the lungs become compromised and are no longer able to inflate properly. This can cause shortness of breath. Labored breathing will continue as more fluid fills the area.

The primary causes of this condition include…

  • Cancer
  • Heart failure (Congestive heart failure)
  • Chylothorax (Fatty fluid buildup)
  • Pyothorax (Chest infection)
  • Feline Infectious Peritonitis (a potentially fatal condition)


If your senior cat struggles with weight concerns, labored breathing could be a symptom of obesity.

Because senior cats often deal with joint and muscle ailments, any form of play or exercise can become a thing of the past. Additionally, even the most basic tasks can become daunting and painful.

Due to reduced mobility, relaxing and sleeping become an even more substantial part of daily life. With no way to shed pounds, weight gain can occur without you noticing.

The best way to handle this problem is through dietary adjustments. If no underlying condition has been diagnosed, changing the way your cat eats (and when it eats) can help.

With your vet as a guide, you can formulate a daily routine to ensure your cat receives the right amount of nutrition while reducing the fat intake.

  • Weight loss will improve breathing and reduce joint pain. Your cat will naturally be inclined to move more if his/her weight has been decreased. By default, this could result in your cat becoming healthier across the board thanks to daily movements. Something as simple as taking laps around your living room on a routine basis can do wonders for your pet’s health.

Physical Trauma

Because senior cats often lack a strong and stable foundation, it becomes easier for them to fall and inflict physical trauma on themselves. When joint pain and arthritis become severe, even the task of walking can become a challenge. Due to a lack of proper balance, it doesn’t take much to cause a fall.

If you suspect that your cat’s heavy breathing is due to trauma, it’s vital to check for a flesh wound. If you discover a chest injury, you should seek immediate medical attention.

cat breathing fast and shallow

What are the Critical Symptoms of Labored Breathing?

It is often a sign of a more pressing issue, but the symptoms can also be met with other concerns. As a general rule, heavy breathing alone, unless prolonged, is not a dire issue. However, heavy breathing that is coupled with other symptoms is potentially severe.

Consult your vet ASAP if your senior cat is exhibiting any of the concerns noted below:

Changes in Breathing Pace

Heavy breathing can be a sign of trouble, but labored breathing combined with an irregular pace can be even more worrisome.

Stopping. Starting. Fast. Slow. Aggressive. Perhaps normal for a few moments. All of these symptoms (visual cues) are alarming.

If it appears that your cat is forcing itself to breathe rather than breathing involuntarily, you should contact your vet. Breathing should never be a task.


Hunching and crouching is a sign that your cat lacks oxygen. Crouching is an emergency symptom. Most cats will stand and lean forward with a stretched neck in an attempt to breathe.

Loss of Appetite

Cats that find it hard to breathe often have no desire to eat. Food consumption requires effort.

The loss of appetite is also a red flag sign that oxygen is in short supply. Cats that are having great difficulty will shut off various activities (including eating and drinking) as a means to conserve energy.


Lack of energy and enthusiasm is also a troubling symptom that points to a larger problem. If breathing issues are being caused by disease, trauma or a severe illness the body can become substantially weakened as a whole.

If your cat is refusing to acknowledge you or no longer responds to things it once enjoyed, you must seek medical attention.


It’s common for sick cats that are near death to shut down and isolate themselves from all forms of interaction. Getting to the cause of the breathing concern becomes paramount if withdrawal begins to take place.

Signs of illness hiding may include…

  • Sleeping and relaxing in places of your home that have never proven interesting in the past.
  • Coming out from a hiding area to use the bathroom only to return to the same area immediately.
  • Use of the bathroom in a hiding area rather than the litter box.
  • Making a deliberate attempt not to be seen or found. For example, hiding under your sofa and refusing to come out.

Blue or Purple Gums

Heavy breathing during a relaxed state that is met with blue or purple gums is a sign that much-needed oxygen is lacking. Similar to hunching, gum discoloration signals that even the most minimal of oxygen needs are not being met.

Do cats breathe out of their mouths?

Monitor behavioral and physical standards as well as trends. Knowing the color of your cat’s gums beforehand can allow you to spot a problem almost immediately. Black gums with spots are relatively common cays.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Breathing Conditions in Cats

Once your cat is in the care of a professional, the first move will likely involve placing your cat on oxygen. This will not only assist with breathing but help to calm your cat.

If your cat is forcing itself to breathe, then odds are its entire body has been taxed. Extreme exhaustion can set in if natural breathing becomes a battle to survive.

Following breathing assistance, the next step will involve a detailed medical examination. In most cases, the lungs and heart will be of top priority. This process utilizes a chest X-ray.

If a fluid is discovered within the chest, it will be drained and tested. Blood tests will also be performed to find out the root of the problem.

Once the test results have been received, an official diagnosis will be made. Going forward, most every treatment will be made solely on the vet’s findings.

  • The primary goal of basic treatment will be to return your cat to good spirits and make sure foods and liquids are being consumed. In many cases, hospitalization will be required for your cat to meet some of the most critical baseline goals. IV fluids and medications may also be given as well as additional oxygen if needed.

How Do Healthy Cats Breathe?

Normal breathing should involve small movements of the chest. Nothing too shallow or deep. The sides of your cat should never show large amounts of movement.

The absence of excessive movement(s) is a sign of normal breathing. From a visual standpoint, you should have to look closely to see if your cat is breathing at all.

If you can look across the room (or at a reasonable distance) and see that your cat is breathing, this is a sign of labored breathing.

  • Normal breathing should also appear natural. Slow and easy. You should never see a hitch in the breathing. A hitch can be defined as heavy movements, and a stop or delay, and then another round of heavy breathing. Normal breathing should display no hitch or stoppages in movement.

What is a Normal Breathing Pace?

Most healthy cats breathe at a pace of 16-40 breaths per minute. Normal respiration is typically noted during a resting period.

  • If you fear that your senior cat is breathing heavily, make sure the setting is natural. Resting after coming inside from the heat, after a long walk or even after a large meal can cause you to reach an incorrect conclusion. True relaxation involves a still environment where no activity has taken place for at least 30 minutes. For example, if your cat has been asleep for 2 hours and heavy and labored breathing is taking place, that is a sign of a severe concern.

how to tell if your cat has a cold

Do Senior Cats Have a Different Breathing Pace?

As a rule, the answer is no. However, senior cats are often under more stress than kittens and adult cats. The aches and pains of daily living can impact breathing pace. How your cat sleeps (quality sleep) can also create a different breathing pace.

It’s also not uncommon for senior cats to snore. Whether due to physical positioning during sleep, obesity or an obstruction, elderly cats can be rather noisy breathers.

Faster breathing pace doesn’t always equate to labored breathing.

Can Stress & Anxiety Cause Heavy Breathing in Cats?

In the same way that stress and anxiety can change a cat’s pace of breathing, it can also change the intensity. Dreams can also cause heavy breathing.

Just like people, the life and environment of a cat can change dramatically. The introduction of new animals or even new people (pregnancy) can change the household dynamic. This can create tension for your cat. Heavy breathing during rest periods can be the result.

In severe cases, your cat may vomit or have diarrhea due to stress and anxiety. Weight loss and the pulling out of fur may also be a symptom of unease.

If your senior cat is struggling to breathe or experiencing bouts of heavy breathing during an otherwise relaxed state, you should consult your vet. Although breathing issues should be treated with urgency in all cases, breathing difficulties can easily cause an elderly cat to take a turn for the worse.

Taking care of an elderly cat is similar to being charged with the care of a senior person. No symptom should be dismissed or ignored. It’s better to take your cat to the vet as a precaution than to risk living with the regret of steps not taken.