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Labored Breathing in Cats and Dogs: Causes & What to Do

Labored Breathing in Cats and Dogs: Causes & What to Do

Your dog or cat panting doesn't necessarily mean their breathing is labored. Labored breathing actually means that your pet is struggling to breathe. Here, our Blountville vets explain what labored breathing in dogs and cats is and what to do if your pet is having difficulties breathing.

What is Labored Breathing in dogs and cats?

To identify when your dog or cat is experiencing breathing difficulties, it's essential to differentiate between rapid breathing (tachypnea) and actual struggling to breathe (dyspnea).

Tachypnea

  • Tachypnea is the fast breathing we all experience when exercising. If you take your dog out for a run, they may pant and breathe quickly but this does not mean that your dog is having difficulties breathing.

Dyspnea

  • Dyspnea is the term for labored breathing in cats and dogs. This term means that your animal is actually having difficulties taking breaths, or is short of breath.

Labored breathing is a veterinary emergency that demands prompt attention. However, how can you determine if your pet is having difficulty breathing? The symptoms exhibited by cats and dogs when experiencing breathing difficulties can vary.

What are the signs of labored breathing in dogs?

When a dog is having difficulty breathing you are likely to notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Constant panting
  • Sitting up with a wide stance to breathe (front legs/elbows spread out)
  • Belly heaving in and out more as they breathe
  • Foaming or frothing at the mouth
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Exercise intolerance (most notably, when you take them for a walk)
  • Persistent cough, especially at night
  • An increased respiratory rate > 40 bpm
  • Stretching the neck out to breathe
  • An unusually hoarse sounding bark
  • Sighs of anxiety such as restlessness or pacing

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

It's very common for cats to hide when they aren't feeling well which can make spotting the signs of labored breathing challenging for cat owners. That said, when a cat is experiencing difficulties breathing they may show one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Hiding in a quiet place
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Body hunched close to the ground with neck extended forward
  • Hacking or persistent coughing
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Foaming or frothing from the mouth

What should I do if my pet is having difficulties breathing?

If your dog or cat is showing any indications of breathing difficulties, it's crucial to visit the veterinarian immediately. Labored breathing should always be treated as a veterinary emergency.

To assist your pet in breathing more comfortably, the veterinarian will need to identify the underlying condition responsible for the breathing issues.

What causes labored breathing in dogs and cats?

Cats and dogs aren't always susceptible to the same conditions but some of the most common health issues that can lead to breathing difficulties in either type of animal include:

  • Asthma
  • Infectious diseases 
  • Growths in the upper airway
  • Heart failure
  • Cancer
  • Metabolic issues
  • Pneumonia
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Trauma

How is labored breathing in pets treated?

After your pet has had a thorough examination the treatment prescribed by your veterinarian will depend upon the underlying cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Some treatments for labored breathing include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • IV fluids
  • Steroids to reduce airway inflammation
  • Bronchodilators to expand airway and increase airflow
  • Diuretics to treat fluid in lungs

Additional diagnostic testing may be required in order to pinpoint the precise cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Diagnostic testing could include chest or abdominal x-rays and electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to check heart function. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your cat or dog is having difficulty breathing, it is important to seek urgent care. Please contact our Blountville veterinarians or visit our daytime emergency animal hospital immediately. We will make every effort to see you!

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Airport Pet Emergency Clinic is open weekday evenings, overnight, weekends and holidays to provide your pet with urgent care when needed. Our experienced Blountville vets are passionate about caring for companion animals.

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