Pet Articles

Cat Respiratory Disease

Sometimes we notice our cats coughing and sneezing. Is it something to worry about? Do cats get colds like humans do? How does one know if it is serious? How long should one wait before bringing the cat to the vet? What are other signs of respiratory disease in cats? What causes these diseases?

Like in humans, there are many causes of coughing and sneezing in the cat. It may be due to environmental irritants, such as dust or allergens. Perhaps the cat’s litter is dusty, or he/she may be allergic to something in the environment. Aerosol air fresheners or disinfectants may also irritate a cat’s throat if the smell is too strong or if the cat walks on wet, freshly sprayed surfaces and subsequently licks his/her paws. Therefore, check the litter and try to reduce strong chemical scents in the air. Remember that a cat’s sense of smell is many times more sensitive than a human’s.

Coughing and sneezing may also be due to an upper respiratory infection (URI), and may be combined with purulent discharge from the nose, mouth and/or eyes. For more information about URIs in cats, visit http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-catcolds.htm and http://www.pets.ca/encyclopedia/upper_respinfection_cat.htm

If a cat is occasionally coughing or sneezing, but has no other signs of infection (such as watery eyes, discharge from the nose or mouth, wheezing, lethargy, weakness, inappetance (reduced appetite), or depression), you may monitor the cat for a few days to see if it improves on its own. If it persists for longer than a few days, or if the condition worsens, it is best to visit your veterinarian.

Most cat owners are aware of their pet’s normal daily behaviour and activity level. However, how many are aware of their cat’s normal breathing pattern? A cat’s normal respiratory rate or breathing pattern may be difficult to assess, because of how well a cat can compensate and ‘hide’ disease. An owner may not even realize that their cat is having respiratory difficulties for several days. The laid-back lifestyle or the long haired coats of some cats make it difficult for some owners to assess their cat’s breathing pattern.

What constitutes a serious disease? The disease is considered mild if the cat is sneezing with the occasional nasal discharge. However, if the cat is showing open-mouthed breathing, weakness or severe coughing, this is considered severe respiratory distress and veterinary attention should be sought as soon as possible.

There are a wide range of causes for respiratory disease in cats, including tracheal obstructions, infections, parasites, asthma, heart disease, allergies, cancer, and trauma.

Balls, strings, or other foreign objects may get stuck in a cat’s trachea, causing coughing and/or vomiting. Viral infections, such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) may cause fluid build-up around the lungs due to leakage from blood vessels. Viral diseases may compromise the cat’s immune system and make them more susceptible to bacterial infection. Bacterial or fungal invasion of the lungs may cause pneumonia. Parasites such as lungworm cause coughing and lethargy, although they are less common in the cat compared to other species. Similar to humans, severe asthmatic attacks will cause breathing problems as well. Heart disease may cause pleural effusion (fluid accumulation around the lungs), which makes it hard for the lungs to inflate. Pulmonary emboli (blood clot in the lungs) can cause inflammation in the lungs and subsequently compromise lung function. Severe anemia (low red blood cell count) may also contribute to breathing difficulties. Allergy-induced pneumonitis may cause a chronic cough. Traumatic injuries, such as being hit by a car or falling, can result in a condition called pneumothorax (air in the thorax) which collapses the lungs and makes breathing difficult. Trauma may also cause a diaphragmatic hernia (hole in the diaphragm allowing abdominal contents to leak into the thorax), which may compress the lungs. Tumours may occur at any location in the respiratory tract, including the nose, mouth, larynx, trachea, and lungs. Clinical signs with cancer will vary. Tracheal collapse, although rare in cats, will also cause respiratory distress. Therefore, the list of causes can be overwhelming, and it is up to the veterinarian to help narrow things down.

How is respiratory disease diagnosed? Often the first diagnostic instrument that a veterinarian will use is a stethoscope. He/she will listen for abnormal lung sounds (such as fluid in the lungs), or abnormal heart sounds (indicating heart disease). X-rays of the cat’s chest will be the next diagnostic tool. The veterinarian will evaluate the chest for pneumonia, fluid accumulation, heart abnormalities, evidence of foreign bodies (such as an object stuck in the trachea), diaphragmatic hernias, or other signs of trauma. While the cat is in clinic, the cat would be placed into a tank where it can receive oxygen to facilitate breathing because the cat is already having difficulty breathing and most cats would be stressed coming into the clinic. Further diagnostics (such as ultrasound) may be recommended depending on the findings on the x-rays.

If fluid is found within the chest, the veterinarian will collect a sample of the fluid for analysis. The fluid will be analyzed for colour, opacity, protein levels and cellular content. The type of fluid will give an indication of the underlying cause of the disease, such as heart failure, tumours, infection, or leakage of chyle into the thorax.

Computed tomography (CT) scans may also be available as a diagnostic tool. It can be used in instances where ultrasound cannot provide a diagnosis, as CT technology is not impaired by air or fluid. For example, CT scans can help identify lung tumours which can be removed surgically.

If a cat is in respiratory distress due to fluid in the lungs, removing some of that fluid will provide immediate relief. The veterinarian will use a chest tap and/or chest drain. Once the cat has been stabilized, other treatments can be initiated to address the underlying problem.

The cat’s respiratory system is very delicate, and if diseased, can quickly progress to a state of emergency. Therefore, it is important to observe your cat’s normal respiratory patterns so you can recognize abnormalities before it becomes too serious.

By – Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer

17 Responses to this Article, So Far

  1. Avatar Alfiana says:

    I would like to share my experience recently which caused my dearly kitten, Shiraz’s life. On the day I noticed his breathing abnormality, I thought he was choked with his own fur. As it got worsen the next morning, I rushed him to the vet and was told that his lungs collapsed. Sadly though, within an hour he was being treated, he was gone. That was so sudden, even the vet couldn’t rectify the exact cause of his death (she just said he was lack of oxygen). However, based on what I’ve observed, he had symptoms of pneumonia (blue tongue and gums). It still bothers me up til now (it’s been 4 days since his passing) of what really happened to him.

  2. Avatar anna says:

    my new kitten has bad breath and drools a lot i thought it was normal but now my 6 year old cat drools and has bad breath m worried what do i do??

  3. Avatar Bill says:

    Our cat was a healthy two year old female who died within two days of showing any sign of illness. She seemed perfectly fine on a Saturday morning but didn’t eat dinner and by Sunday night her breathing was rapid. We took her to the vet on Monday morning and she died in the waiting room.
    If you see lethargy and rapid breathing, seek medical care as soon as possible.

    • Avatar Marko says:

      I’m SO sorry for your loss Bill. Please accept my deepest condolences. I know how hard this is.

      Thanks for sharing this sad story as it may help others.
      Sincerely – Marko

  4. Avatar Lori says:

    I had a cat that passed away recently from fip(which I had never heard of)the vet said there was nothing we could do because the fluid was leaking into all of her organs.it was heartbreaking.now I have a couple cats sneezing and wheezy with allergies and I keep very close eye on them.they have been taking amoxiciilin for uri.does anyone know if fip can be treated or not.we were told no.

  5. Avatar Elaine says:

    I had a 15 year old male tabby named Tiger. 6 years ago he was diagnosed with diabetes and came close to dying from Ketoacidosis. After being on insulin for one month he was off insulin and diet controlled. He remained that way the remainder of his life.
    Yesterday at 10 he began having a hard time breathing making a huffing noise and rapid breathing. He was weak and hardly able to stand. We rushed him to the Vet, his breathing worsened and he was put on oxygen. Doctor said throat was clear, no obstructions, and thinking might be a blood clot in lungs but not sure. She did not think tests were worth doing and felt be would die and be stressed.
    Tigers breath became more labored, more oxygen given and was getting weaker. We decided to put him down and end the suffering fast. Two hours from start to finish with no definite diagnosis. Any ideas of what happened? It really bothers me if there was anything we could have done.

    • Avatar Marko says:

      I really don’t know what happened. Only an autopsy can really confirm what happened and those are not cheap.
      I just wanted to offer you my deepest condolences – I know all too well how painful this is.

      Don’t beat yourself up, remember the good times you had and cherish the memories.

      many people have found that writing a tribute helps and this can be done on our forum or through our pet pages. It has helped me and many others.

      I’m so sorry again for your loss.
      RIP sweet Tiger.

    • Avatar Lori says:

      Elaine I am so sorry for your loss.it almost sounds like fip.which is what my cat had and there is nothing you can do

  6. Avatar marsha says:

    Elaine,I had a cat several years ago that had congestive heart failure, with symptoms just like you have described.Im so sorry.I know you miss him.Imagine him in cat heaven.Thats what I do.

  7. Avatar Samad says:

    My eyes are blurred even as I am reading and typing this. We buried our cat just yesterday and I miss her so much!!! I wish I had read this earlier and knew more about the complications our pets (who are like our family members) can experience. My cat Lacy was pregnant; she was excited and we were excited. Unfortunately, her deliveries were a nightmare. The first one was breach and she struggled a bit. More than the exhaustion of pushing, the sigh of her disappointment was the worst. It was still born. We tried to revive the kitten after googling the internet. After lovingly stroking her and encouraging her, she took rest and tried again the next day. In 10 min. the kitten was out but was again a still born. Same failure to revive. After more than 24 hrs, she tried again and labored hard. Unfortunately the kitty got stuck with head partially out. The kitty decided to hold on to its tiny ear with its paw, that made it difficult to come out. We took Lacy to the vet and she gave a final push there and they pulled the dead kitten out. Third time sorrow for her. We did our best to comfort her with our hugs and kisses and gentle stroking. By now we just wanted Lacy to be safe. Doc said there were two more in there. We were concerned. Doc said we could take her home but we noticed her labored breathing so asked if she was okay or if she was going into labor. They said, she was just exhausted. We stayed there for about an hour..nothing happened except for the panting with her tongue out. We brought her home and tried to feed her and give her water. We noticed she was very weak and wobbly and couldn’t walk. Thought maybe the ordeal at the clinic made her weak and let her sit. She started drooling a bit. We kept her in shallow box with soft bedding. She got out and slowly walked to where I was. I stroked her. We noticed a movement like contraction. It was midnight by now. Called the emergency,( a different one…the first one refused to see her unless we paid upfront money for doc fees and surgery and other treatment). One look at the cat, the doc said, she was very sick. On exam, found fluid in lungs. He said she was going to die…nothing he could’ve done. She was calm except for the panting until we got there. Probably the visit stressed her and she began to struggle with breathing. The doc suggested putting her to sleep. He put her on oxygen while we were struggling with the right decision. It was the most heart breaking decision and still wondering if there would have been hope. Although this article enlightens me on what must have happened, I wish there was more info of treatment and hope to save her. Also, I researched trying to find out dangerous effects for mother cat if the kitten got stuck or if the kittens were still born and on complications for mother in labor. I got only articles and advice on saving the kittens but none on what could happen to the cat. I feel that I let my Lacy die due to my ignorance.

  8. Avatar Lana Houger says:

    I decided to write about what happened to my cat, Buster. He was a beautiful Siamese, tabby male about two years old. He had labored breathing, runny nose and eyes since I got him. I took him to several vets who would put him on anitbiotics for awhile, which did not do much. I put him on natural supplements to boost the immune system but he always was playful, ate well and was energetic.
    He had an amazing personality. One day he was spitting up phlem a bit, but did not seem sick as he was still eating fine and had a cold nose. I went to bed and in the morning he died. I just buried him in the garden. I am angry because the vets charge so much for tests (thousands of dollars) and did not give me adequate information. I think his lungs filled up and he had a heart attack. I would have taken him to emergency if he had showed symptoms but it happened during the night quickly.
    Now, I am left with such sadness. If you have a cat with URI do not take it lightly, you have a very sick cat that could die suddenly.

  9. Avatar Debbie Johnson says:

    I have 4 cats, in which 3 of them have contracted a cough where they stick their neck out and cough or heave, nothing comes out, they are not sick, I did initially .take the first one to the vet, had all checked out couldnt find anything wrong, breathing, heart all ok etc that was about 3 months ago, she still has the cough, can cough anytime during day or night, 2 other of my cats have the same, is it catching/infectous please? many thanks for this site:-) Debbie

    • Avatar Marko says:

      It sound like they have all caught something…. but what it is and how to treat is is pure speculation. They will need another vet visit to be sure.
      Feel free to post this on our forum though for a better back and forth.
      Good luck!

  10. Avatar lp says:

    I lost my buggie yesterday due to HCM, the doctors told me the day before her passing she had an URI. That night her breathing was way more labored and her eyes were hazy…I called the vet and she asked me if she was open mouthed breathing which she wasn’t she was just barely breathing. The vet told me to come in in the morning if tthings didn’t change. By the morning she was cold and when she could meow she would( a screaming painful meow) I rushed her to the vet and they extracted 60 ccs of fluid from her lungs and put her into an oxygen chamber. She seemed relaxed and she was able to breathe, but I feel she was done fighting, she passed away after a couple hours. Please if anyone feels something is not right with their kitty TAKE THEM TO THE VET!!! Those little colds can turn to the worst so fast. We know our animals the best and we know what’s not right.

  11. Avatar Melissa says:

    First I would like to say my heart goes out to everyone who has lost their pet. Today my cat of 10 years passed away. I guess I am searching on here for answers. I rescued Luke and they thought he may of been between 5 and 7. He was a big fluffy Norwegian Forest cat. He was such an amazing cat. I loved him from the 1st moment I saw him. Everyone who met Luke loved him including non cat lovers! My boyfriend(non cat lover) referred to him as his best friend. To share my story maybe it can help someone else. A couple of weeks ago I noticed as he was breathing his chest was pulling in hard. I took him to the vet and they took a blood test and did an exam. They noticed he had an ear infection. I thought this was odd because he was an indoor cat. So home I came with the drops and they said he seems ok. They called next day with his blood results and said all looked clear. His purr sounded funny like a bird and they said he is old and that’s just a change in his vocals. Two weeks later I come home on Friday night and he met me at the door gasping for air. I rushed him to a pet er and they put him on oxygen. In my heart I felt he was dying. They did a chest X-ray and said it looked good. Back on oxygen he went. He stayed on Oxygen sat and Sunday. Monday morning I picked up the chest X-ray and took to my vet. He said he needed a steroid shot and if they won’t give it to him bring him there. I told the er doctor this and he said no and they gave me discharge papers and I rushed him 2 minutes down to my vet. He was struggling to breathe and not one person in that waiting room offered me there spot I sat there on the floor with my hand in the cage waiting and watching my beloved Luke struggle for air. When they called me in Luke was gasping. The doctor did not know what to do. I grabbed him and held him. I knew he was going to die. He motioned to get down and I put him on the table he gasp for air for a guess 15 seconds and then passed. I wanted to help him. I couldn’t stand seeing him suffer. Now I ask myself what did I do. Why did I take him off of oxygen. Why didn’t they give him the steroid shot at the er. Why.what if. I didn’t know what to do and now he is gone. My heart is broken. The hard part too is knowing his last few minutes were so terrifying for him. He was such a kind gentle cat.

  12. Avatar Lynn says:

    I too, and others in my house hold are grieving our 3 year old cat name Moe who passed away 2 days ago….About two years ago he had some labored breathing and just was not himself…I took him in to the vet ER and they were closed…Of course when i would call for help they all just told me to see how he is in the morning and if worse bring him in….He snapped out of it and I got on the net to see what could have caused this…I bought cat food that helped with hair balls and changed his treats and he had been out of the woods for a long time….Since than he has had 2 more similar episodes that lead me to believe that maybe he had asthma cause they were short lived…2 days ago after dropping my daughter off to camp I walked in to the house and our cat was drooling profusely out of his mouth and nose and was non-responsive…I called the vet and he was gone till august…Than called the vet ER and by the time I was just about to bring him in he had laid down in a dying position and took a few deep breaths and one big one and than just stopped…I am sick…I miss him so much…My daughter doesn’t know yet cause I don’t want to ruin her camping fun….I will never get another cat cause I can’t go through the horrible loss of loving something and loosing it…Any inspirational advice :(

Leave a Comment

(Additional questions? Ask them for free in our dog - cat - pet forum)