Suffocation in Cats

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM
By Rhiannon Koehler, DVM on Jan. 26, 2024
A gray cat hides under a pink blanket.

What Is Suffocation in Cats?

No one wants to think about their cat choking or suffocating, but the risk is real. Being prepared could prevent a tragedy and save your cat’s life.

Suffocation in cats is a medical emergency. If your cat has lost consciousness or has any other signs of choking or suffocation, take them immediately to an emergency veterinarian.

Just like you, your cat needs to breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide to live. However, most cats will breathe through their mouth instead of their nose only as a last resort, although you can occasionally see panting with high stress or vigorous exercise.

When your cat is deprived of the oxygen they need to function, they experience suffocation. Suffocation can occur due to smothering, choking, having a lack of adequate oxygen in a confined space, or being in an environment where other gases displace oxygen in the air (such as carbon monoxide poisoning).

We don’t know the exact incidence of suffocation in cats. While it is more common in dogs, it occurs in cats frequently enough that you should safeguard your home from suffocation hazards. Unresolved suffocation in cats is fatal.

Symptoms of Suffocation in Cats

Symptoms of suffocation in cats include:

  • Gasping for breath or trouble breathing (dyspnea)

  • Coughing or gagging

  • Extending the head and neck forward

  • Blue gums (cyanosis)

  • Pawing at the mouth, especially while panicking

  • Loss of consciousness

Unfortunately, many cases of suffocation in cats occur when pet parents are not present to notice or help. Often, their pet is found already dead.

Causes of Suffocation in Cats

Anything that could obstruct your cat’s ability to breathe could lead to suffocation. Common causes include:

  • Choking on food or toys

  • Getting trapped in a confined space without air holes, such as a closed food bin

  • Getting trapped under heavy blankets

  • Getting their head stuck in a chip or snack bag

  • Lung trauma, such as getting hit by a car, causing lung collapse

  • Smoke inhalation in a house fire

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning

Keep in mind that cats may experience similar symptoms in cases of strangulation or drowning. Strangulation could occur if the cat’s collar gets caught on something and fails to break away.

Inside the home, drowning of cats tends to happen in the washing machine when a cat jumps in without the pet parent noticing.

What To Do if You Think Your Cat Is Suffocating

If you think your cat is suffocating and they’re still conscious, briefly and calmly assess the situation. Your cat may be panicking, which will cause them to struggle more. As difficult as it is, you must try to remain calm to prevent exacerbating your cat’s anxiety.

Is there something stuck around your cat’s head, in their mouth, or around their neck?

If so, try to gently remove the object. If you can safely look in their mouth and sweep their throat with your index finger, do this to look for and potentially dislodge any objects in the back of the throat.

If your cat is choking, perform the Heimlich maneuver.

If nothing is working, go immediately to the nearest veterinarian, preferably an emergency clinic.

If your cat is unconscious, immediately take your cat to a veterinarian. Ideally, you would have one person focused on safely driving the vehicle while another person performs CPR on the cat.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Suffocation in Cats

When you get to the veterinarian, make sure to disclose your cat’s medical history, including anything that may have led to the suffocation.

Your veterinarian will quickly perform a physical examination to check for a heartbeat, the ability to breathe, and any obvious airway obstruction. If the cat has no heartbeat and isn’t breathing, your veterinarian will perform CPR.

Once your cat is no longer in immediate distress, your veterinarian will perform blood work and urinalysis to get baseline values, as well as chest X-rays to assess for damage to the lungs.

Treatment of Suffocation in Cats

Your pet’s veterinarian will be most concerned about brain and lung damage.

Irreversible brain damage may develop after several minutes without oxygen, but it can take hours for lung damage to fully declare itself. Your veterinarian will want to monitor your cat to ensure they’re recovering well.

Pets who have survived suffocation may need to remain in the hospital for several days to receive oxygen and IV fluids.

If the cat has developed pneumonia, they may also receive antibiotics.

In severe cases, a ventilator may be recommended to allow the lungs to heal. Ventilator therapy requires constant sedation and is cost-prohibitive for many pet parents.

Recovery and Management of Suffocation in Cats

Cases of suffocation that are quickly resolved may not require any additional management after the initial veterinary evaluation.

Most of these cases are ones that the pet parent witnessed or found while the animal was still conscious. For instance, if the cat started choking and the pet parent was able to remove the offending object prior to presenting to the veterinary clinic, their chances of survival are good. Most of these cats will make a full recovery.

However, several minutes without oxygen can cause irreversible brain damage. In severe cases, your cat is unlikely to recover.

Most of these cases will either be found by the pet parent too late, or the cause was too severe for the pet parent to intervene, such as lung damage after getting hit by a car.

Cats who recover a heartbeat may not survive due to quality-of-life concerns. Fewer than 6% of cats who require CPR will survive.

Prevention of Suffocation in Cats

Most cases of suffocation in cats are accidental, so prevention is key!

Recommendations for preventing suffocation in your cat include:

  • Keep bags and jars out of your cat’s reach.

  • When throwing chip bags, treat bags, or plastic bags into the trash, cut the bottom and sides of the bag to create a flat piece rather than a bag with an opening.

  • Use latching containers rather than bins that cats could accidentally trap themselves in.

  • Avoid toys that have easily inhaled components like feathers or allow only supervised access to the toy.

  • Use only breakaway collars on cats.

  • Check your washer and dryer just before starting any laundry.

  • Keep your cat indoors to prevent injuries like getting hit by a car.

  • Regularly check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to ensure they are working.

  • Have your emergency veterinary clinic’s contact information and address readily available.

  • Familiarize yourself with both the Heimlich maneuver and CPR in cats.

Suffocation in Cats FAQs

How do I know if my cat is struggling to breathe?

If your cat is extending their head and neck, open-mouth breathing, pawing at their mouth while panicking, or their tongue and gums have a purplish color, they may be struggling to breathe.

What do I do if my cat is gasping for air?

If you can safely look in your cat’s mouth, look for an obstruction and sweep the back of the throat with a finger to see if there is an obstruction.

If not, you can briefly try the Heimlich maneuver. If you can’t see a reason for the gasping and the Heimlich maneuver isn’t working, we recommend promptly getting to an emergency veterinarian.

Can cats suffocate under blankets?

Most blankets are sufficiently aerated, so you don’t have to worry about your cat too much if they crawl under for a brief snuggle.

However, thick blankets, multiple layers of blankets, or blankets with strings that could get caught in the mouth or around the neck could be suffocation hazards.

Featured Image: fotyma/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public...

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