A cat’s respiratory motion should be smooth, even, and unrestrained. Rapid breathing at rest, coarse breathing, wheezing, rasping, coughing, and bubbling in the chest are all abnormal. (However, when a cat is intently sniffing an object, the respirations may appear abnormal for a brief time.) Possible causes of abnormal breathing are discussed in this section, along with their signs. Many feline respiratory problems have infectious causes.
Rapid breathing. This can be caused by pain, stress, fever, or overheating. Other conditions to consider are shock, dehydration, anemia, lung disease, heart disease, and a buildup of acid or toxic substances in the blood (diabetes, kidney failure, or poisoning). An increased rate of breathing at rest means a veterinary examination is necessary. X-rays and other tests may be needed to help identify the exact cause.
Slow breathing. A very slow rate of breathing is found in cats with narcotic poisoning, encephalitis, or a blood clot pressing on the brain. In late stages of shock or collapse, it usually signifies a terminal condition.
Panting. Panting is a normal process after exercise. It is one of the chief ways in which a cat lowers her body temperature, as water evaporates from the mouth, tongue, and lungs and warm air is exchanged for cool. Cats also cool themselves by licking their fur and by perspiring through the pads of their feet. When panting is rapid, labored, and accompanied by anxiety, heat stroke should be considered. Some cats will pant and breathe with an open mouth when they are frightened.
Shallow breathing. Shallow breathing is seen in cats with conditions that restrict the motion of the rib cage. To avoid the pain of a deep breath, a cat breathes rapidly but less deeply. The pain of pleurisy or rib fractures can cause shallow breathing. Blood, pus, or serum in the chest produces restricted breathing, but normally without pain. This condition, called pleural effusion, is the most common cause of respiratory distress in cats.
Noisy breathing. Noisy breathing indicates obstructed airways and is a cardinal sign of upper respiratory disease. Cats with shortened muzzles, such as Persians, may always make some noise when they breathe.Croupy breathing. This refers to the high, harsh sound caused by air passing through a narrowed larynx. When the onset is sudden, the most likely diagnosis is a foreign body in the larynx or a swelling in the throat.
Wheezing. A wheeze is a whistling sound that occurs when a cat breathes forcefully in or out. It indicates narrowing or spasm in the bronchial tubes. Tight, deep-seated wheezes are best heard with a stethoscope. Causes of wheezing include feline asthma, lungworms, heartworms, and tumors or growths in the bronchial tubes.
Meowing (crying). A cat who meows continuously is most likely in pain or some sort of discomfort or distress. You should determine the cause of this anxiety and seek veterinary attention. Excessive meowing can lead to laryngitis.
First discovered in the 1960s, feline leukemia virus is a transmittable RNA retrovirus that can severely inhibit a cat’s immune system. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of disease and death in domestic cats.
Because the virus doesn’t always manifest symptoms right away, any new cat entering a household-and any sick cat-should be tested for FeLV.