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How to Treat Breathing Difficulties in Cats

By Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM



If your cat is having difficulty breathing, this is what you can expect to happen next.


  • Medication: Your veterinarian may prescribe any of a number of medications (e.g., bronchodilators or diuretics) depending on the underlying cause of your cat’s breathing difficulty.


  • Surgery: Surgical procedures, like those that drain fluid from around the lungs, may be necessary in some cases.


  • Diet: Special diets may be prescribed, particularly if heart disease is the cause of a cat’s problems breathing.


What to Expect at the Vet’s Office


When cats are having severe problems breathing, veterinarians will first perform any procedures necessary to stabilize their condition. For example, your cat may be put on supplemental oxygen or undergo a chest tap if fluid within the chest cavity is making it hard for the lungs to expand.


Once your cat’s condition is stable, the veterinarian will need to determine what disease or disorder is making it difficult for your cat to breathe. He or she will start with a physical examination and complete health history, often followed by some combination of diagnostic tests. Possibilities include:


  • A blood chemistry panel
  • Complete blood cell count
  • Serology to rule in or out various infectious diseases
  • Chest x-rays
  • Echocardiography (an ultrasound of the heart)
  • Measurement of blood pressure
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • An examination of fluid samples taken from the airways or around the lungs


Appropriate treatment will depend on the results of these tests and the eventual diagnosis. Some of the more common disorders that make it hard for cats to breathe include:


Asthma — Medications that decrease inflammation (e.g., fluticasone or prednisolone) and dilate airways (e.g., albuterol or terbutaline) can be given, ideally by inhalation to reduce side effects but also systemically if necessary.


Heart Disease — Veterinarians will usually prescribe some combination of medications that make the heart pump more efficiently, normalize blood pressure, and reduce the abnormal build-up of fluid (e.g., pimobendan, enalapril, or furosemide).


Infections — Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites can all infect a cat’s upper respiratory tract, lung tissue (pneumonia), airways (bronchitis), or a combination thereof (e.g., bronchopneumonia). Antibiotics are effective only against bacteria, they cannot be used to treat non-bacterial infections. Medications are available that work against some types of fungi and parasites but not others (e.g., feline heartworm disease). Some viruses will run their course while others can lead to permanent poor health and sometimes death.


Cancer — Lung and other types of cancer can make it difficult for cats to breathe. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or palliative therapy.


Trauma — Injuries can lead to bleeding in or around the lungs, broken ribs, collapsed lungs, and more. Rest, pain relief, symptomatic/supportive care (e.g., blood transfusions and oxygen therapy), and sometimes surgery is necessary if a cat is to recover.


Pleural Effusion — Fluid (blood, lymph, pus, etc.) or gas can collect around the lungs and needs to be removed via a chest tap, chest tube placement, or surgery.


Obstructions — Foreign material within the airways can make it hard for cats to breathe and must be removed either surgically or using an endoscope. Some flat-faced cats suffer from brachycephalic syndrome, which can obstruct breathing and may need to be surgically corrected.


What to Expect at Home


Supportive care is an important part of helping cats recover from conditions that make it hard for them to breathe. They should be kept indoors so they can be closely monitored and encouraged to eat, drink, and rest. When cats are taking medications to treat an infectious disease (e.g., antibiotics), they should take the entire course, even if their condition appears to be back to normal before the end. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding any other medications that have been prescribed.


Questions to Ask Your Vet


Some causes of difficulty breathing in cats can be contagious to other cats, pets, or even people. Ask your veterinarian if you need to take any precautions to prevent the spread of disease to others in your home.


Ask your veterinarian what the possible side effects are of the medications your cat is taking. Find out when he or she next wants to see your cat for a progress check and whom you should call if an emergency arises outside of your veterinarian’s normal business hours.


Possible Complications to Watch For


Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns about your cat’s condition.


Some cats who take medications can develop side effects, such as loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst/urination, etc. Make sure you understand what your cat’s reaction to any prescribed medications should be.


It is possible for a cat to appear to be on the road to recovery and then suffer a setback. If your cat becomes weaker, has to work harder to breath (e.g., open mouth breathing), coughs more, or develops a blue tinge to the mucous membranes, call your veterinarian immediately.



Image: Tyler Olson / Shutterstock



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