Labored Breathing in Cats and Dogs

Your pet is panting—but is their breathing labored? Labored breathing actually means that your pet is struggling to breathe. Here, our Simi Valley 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?

In order to be able to recognize when your dog or cat is having trouble breathing it's important to distinguish between breathing quickly (tachypnea) and actually 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 requires immediate action, but how can you tell if your pet is struggling to breathe properly? When cats and dogs are experiencing breathing difficulties the symptoms they will exhibit may be different.

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:

  • 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
  • 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

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

Cats tend to hide when they aren't feeling well, so it can be more difficult to spot labored breathing in a cat than in a dog. 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 displaying any signs of breathing difficulties it's time to head to the vet! Labored breathing should always be considered a veterinary emergency. In order to help your pet to breathe more easily, your vet will need to diagnose the underlying condition that is causing your pet's 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?

Treatment for labored breathing in pets depends on the underlying cause of the breathing difficulties. Your vet will do a thorough examination, including any required diagnostic tests, to get to the root of your pet's breathing problems. Diagnostic tests could include chest and abdominal X-rays, echocardiograms to assess heart function, or bloodwork.

Depending on the cause of your pet's labored breathing, some possible 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

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 struggling to breathe normally urgent care is required. At Park Animal Hospital we provide emergency services during our regular clinic hours. Contact us or the nearest 24/7 pet hospital right away.