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Causes, Signs and Treatment for Feline Respiratory Distress

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Feline Respiratory Distress, a guest post by registered vet tech, Georgia Barbush.

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 breath 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. In cases of respiratory distress it is especially important to minimize stress as much as possible. This can be quite difficult when transporting an already compromised cat, but keeping things as calm, quiet, and gentle as possible will help.

If your cat has stopped breathing before reaching the hospital, you can perform CPR. Your veterinarian will be able to give you specific CPR instructions over the phone. To help prepare for emergencies before they occur, pet first aid and CPR classes are available in many areas.


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.

The ICU Cage is a controlled oxygen therapy unit that can be used for home use. An oxygen tent can be beneficial to cats with chronic respiratory difficulty, as long as they are not so stressed inside the tent that it negates the benefits of the oxygen therapy. It may also be possible to have a small oxygen tank setup at home so oxygen can be administered via the “blow by” technique, where the tube is held in the vicinity of the cat’s face, but not so close as to cause discomfort or stress. Some cats prefer this to being confined in a tent or kennel.

Preventing Feline Respiratory Distress

There are a number of ways to limit your cat’s risk of developing respiratory distress:

– Consult your veterinarian right away if your cat shows signs of a respiratory infection (mainly repeated sneezing, nasal discharge, ocular discharge, and ulcers on the tongue)
– Keep potentially toxic substances safely stored away
– Provide cool areas and plenty of water in hot weather
– Keep electrical cords out of reach or covered with protective tubing
– Schedule veterinary check-ups at least once per year
– Minimize potential stressors and provide cats with a safe, quiet retreat of their own


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