Low Blood Oxygen in Cats

By PetMD Editorial on Jan. 30, 2009

Hypoxemia in Cats

Hypoxemia occurs when the blood in the arteries is not being oxygenated sufficiently. The condition is dangerous in cats because the oxygen that is vital for the functioning of all the organs is adversely affected. The brain can suffer irreversible damage when deprived of oxygen for even relatively short periods of time. Oxygen deficiency may also lead to anemia and/or hypoxia in the organs, which can progress to arrhythmia and heart failure. This is a serious condition that needs to be treated quickly.

Symptoms and Types

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abnormally rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Open-mouthed breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Pain
  • Gagging
  • Inability to endure exercise
  • Discoloration of skin and mucous membranes
  • Collapse


  • High elevation
  • Injury
  • Pneumonia
  • Disease of the lining of the lungs
  • Anesthesia
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Feline asthma
  • Lung or heart disease in elderly animals


You will need to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your cat's health, including a background history of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have precipitated this condition. The history you provide may give your veterinarian clues as to which organs are being affected by the lack of oxygen. Your veterinarian will be looking for abnormal breathing, over-excitement, and anxiousness in your cat. Elevated body temperature and an examination for any head injuries will also be vital for making an accurate diagnosis. Samples of blood will be drawn for profiling and diagnostic purposes, and blood gas analyzers will be used for measuring levels of oxygen in the arterial blood.

In addition, X-rays and echocardiograms can be employed to rule out lung and heart diseases as the cause of the oxygen deficiency in the blood. If the cause cannot be determined by any of these methods, an endoscopy or biopsy of the lung may be performed.


Treatment is dependent on the underlying cause of the oxygen deficiency. Oxygen is usually given to support your cat's heart and lungs (cardiovascular system); the oxygen is delivered using a face mask placed securely around the muzzle. However, it is important to keep in mind that this treatment is not always successful.

If the problem is low cardiac output, intravenous (IV) medications to strengthen muscle action will be prescribed. In case of cardiac failure, diuretics and oxygen will be administered, as well as medications to strengthen muscle action.

If there is hemorrhaging, injury, or shock from infection, hospitalization will be required so that an IV can be inserted and fluids brought into the veins to stabilize the body. This will also allow oxygen to reach appropriate levels.

Living and Management

Hypoxemia is a life-threatening condition. Therefore, observe your cat carefully following treatment. Symptoms to watch out for are a decreased ability to breathe, as well any paleness of the tissues (such as the tissues of the mouth and gums), which would signal lack of oxygen diffusion in the tissues. Frequent follow-up visits with your veterinarian will be needed for arterial blood gas measurements.

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