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Labored Breathing in Cats & Dogs

Breathing difficulties in dogs or cats should not be confused with normal panting. Labored breathing indicates that your pet is experiencing difficulty in breathing. This article by our Corpus Christi veterinarians helps clarify what labored breathing is for dogs and cats.

What is labored breathing in dogs and cats?

To be able to recognize when your dog or cat is having trouble breathing, it's important to distinguish the types of breathing. Tachypnea means breathing quickly and dyspnea occurs when pets are struggling to breathe.

Tachypnea vs. Dyspnea

  • 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 is the term for labored breathing in cats and dogs. This term means that your animal is 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 exhibit may differ.

What are the signs of labored breathing in dogs?

If your dog is having difficulty breathing, you are likely to notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • An increased respiratory rate > 40 bpm
  • Stretching the neck out to breathe
  • An unusually hoarse-sounding bark
  • Exercise intolerance (most notably, when you take them for a walk)
  • Persistent cough, especially at night
  • Sighs of anxiety such as restlessness or pacing
  • Foaming or frothing at the mouth
  • Constant panting
  • Sitting up with a wide stance to breathe (front legs/elbows spread out)
  • Belly heaving in and out more as they breathe
  • Blue-tinged gums

What does labored breathing in cats look like?

Cats often hide when they aren't feeling well. This can make spotting the signs of labored breathing challenging for cat owners. That said, when a cat is experiencing difficulty breathing they may show one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Hacking or persistent coughing
  • Hiding in a quiet place
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Body hunched close to the ground with neck extended forward
  • Blue-tinged gums
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Foaming or frothing from the mouth

What should I do if my pet is having difficulty breathing?

Labored breathing should always be considered a veterinary emergency. If your dog or cat is displaying any signs of breathing difficulties, it's time to head to the vet! To help your pet to breathe easier, your vet will need to diagnose the underlying condition that is causing your pet's breathing issues. Sometimes, labored breathing in dogs happens before their death. This is why labored breathing is considered an emergency and you need to see a vet if your dog is showing difficulty breathing. 

What causes labored breathing in dogs and cats?

Cats and dogs aren't always susceptible to the same conditions. The most common health issues that can lead to breathing difficulties in animals include:

  • Asthma
  • Infectious diseases 
  • Heart failure
  • Cancer
  • Growths in the upper airway
  • Metabolic issues
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Trauma
  • Pneumonia

How is labored breathing in pets treated?

After your pet has had a thorough examination, the treatment prescribed by your veterinarian will depend on the underlying cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Some treatments for labored breathing include:

  • Steroids to reduce airway inflammation
  • IV fluids
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Bronchodilators to expand the airway and increase airflow
  • Diuretics to treat fluid in the lungs

Additional diagnostic testing may be required to pinpoint the precise cause of your pet's breathing difficulties. Diagnostic testing could include chest or abdominal X-rays and an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to check heart function. 

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, they may be experiencing labored breathing. Contact our Corpus Christi vets right away or visit our daytime emergency animal hospital to seek treatment.

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