By Elizabeth Xu
Even if you’re a cat person, you probably know that canines tend to pant after exercise or when they’re just too warm. This isn’t a trait normally shared by felines.
If you notice your cat panting, it’s important to assess the situation and consider a trip to the veterinarian if your cat’s panting seems out of the ordinary or continues for a long period of time.
When Cat Panting is Normal
Sometimes cat panting is normal and not a reason to be concerned, especially if you know what kind of activity your cat was involved in immediately beforehand.
“Panting can be a normal response in cats that are overheated, stressed and anxious, or after strenuous exercise,” says Dr. Elizabeth Cottrell, DVM, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Maryland. “It should resolve once the cat has a chance to cool down and rest.” Keep in mind that cat panting under circumstances like these is rarer than it is with dogs, so unless you’re sure of the cause, it’s worth bringing to the attention of your veterinarian.
Signs of Abnormal Panting in Cats
If your cat isn’t stressed, too warm, or tired from recent, vigorous exercise, panting may be a sign of an underlying medical problem.
“Panting has been shown to be associated with an underlying cardiovascular disease with panting being the cat equivalent of shortness of breath,” says Dr. Danel Grimmett, DVM, a veterinarian with Sunset Veterinary Clinic in Oklahoma. “Chronic respiratory diseases such as bronchial disease can cause a cat to pant. Therefore, when a cat is noted to be panting, I always recommend the owner consult with their veterinarian. Even in a young kitten, panting can be a sign of problems like an underlying congenital heart problem.”
Causes of Abnormal Cat Panting
Cottrell says there are a number of health problems that could lead to panting in cats, including:
Asthma: “This can cause panting, wheezing, coughing, and increased respiratory rate,” she says. “Asthma occurs when a cat breathes in particles that stimulate an allergic reaction.” Treatment for asthma in cats often involves medications called corticosteroids or bronchodilators.
Heartworm: Although more commonly associated with dogs, cats can get heartworm, which can cause breathing difficulties. “Treatment is supportive care with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and oxygen therapy in more severe cases,” Cottrell says. “As heartworm disease can be fatal, it is important to keep all cats on a monthly heartworm preventative.”
Congestive heart failure: Accumulated fluid in and around the lungs can cause deep, rapid breaths, coughing, and panting, Cottrell says. Treatment might include draining the fluid from around the lungs or medications to dilate blood vessels, get rid of excess fluid, and make the heart contract with more force.
Respiratory infection: As you might expect, respiratory infections in cats make it difficult for a cat to breathe, which could cause panting. “The cause is usually viral but development of a secondary bacterial infection would warrant antibiotics,” Cottrell says. “Humidifiers and steam can help loosen mucus and make nasal breathing easier.”
Other conditions like anemia, trauma, neurologic disorders, abdominal enlargement, and extreme pain can also cause cats to pant.
When to See a Veterinarian About Cat Panting
As the health problems above indicate, panting in cats could signify a serious disorder. Cottrell says signs your cat is having difficulty breathing include open mouth breathing or panting, wheezing, breathing that looks labored, and an increased respiratory rate. If you notice any of these signs or if your cat is panting without strenuously exercising or being anxious or overheated, contact your veterinarian.
No matter the cause of panting in your cat, Grimmett suggests picking up the phone and contacting your veterinarian to seek advice about the need for evaluation or treatment.
“My best advice to owners is to establish a relationship with a family veterinarian before problems arise,” she says. “Once this is accomplished, questions about panting or any other new behaviors can often be addressed by a simple phone call or even an email to the veterinarian. If a vet feels that their patient needs to be examined, the owner needs to trust [the vet’s] opinion and follow that advice.”