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Breathing Difficulties in Dogs & Cats

While pets may occasionally pant with no serious underlying cause, trouble catching their breath requires urgent care. Labored breathing means that your pet is struggling to breathe properly. Here, our Crystal Lake vets share the signs of breathing difficulties in dogs and cats and what to do if your pet displays labored breathing.

Difficulty Breathing in Dogs & Cats

To identify signs of respiratory distress in your cat or dog, it's crucial to distinguish between rapid breathing (known as tachypnea) and genuine difficulty in breathing (known as dyspnea).

Tachypnea (Abnormally Rapid Breathing)

  • Fast breathing is common during exercise. When you take your dog out for a run, they might pant and breathe rapidly, but this doesn't indicate any breathing problems for your furry friend.

Dyspnea (Shortness of Breath)

  • Dyspnea is the term for labored breathing in cats and dogs. It means your pet is having difficulties breathing or being short of breath.

Labored breathing is a serious veterinary emergency that demands immediate medical attention. How can you determine if your pet is experiencing difficulty breathing? Dogs and cats show distinct symptoms when they have breathing problems.

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 pet include:

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

Signs of Breathing Difficulties in Dogs

When dogs are having difficulty breathing, you are more likely to notice one or more of the following symptoms:

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

Signs of Breathing Difficulties in Cats

It's quite common for our feline friends to hide when they aren't feeling well. Even the most attentive cat owners may find it challenging to spot signs of breathing difficulties. When a cat is having trouble breathing, it may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

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

What steps should I take if my cat or dog has difficulty breathing?

If your cat or dog is showing signs of breathing issues, it's time to head to your vet. If your pet shows labored breathing, it should always be considered a veterinary emergency. To help your pet breathe easily, they must diagnose the underlying condition causing breathing issues.  

What are the methods of managing breathing difficulties in dogs and cats?

After the examination, your vet will prescribe a treatment plan based on the underlying cause of your pet's labored breathing. Some treatments for labored breathing in dogs and cats can include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • IV (intravenous) fluids
  • Steroids to reduce airway inflammation
  • Bronchodilators (medication to widen airways) expand the airway and increase airflow
  • Diuretics (medication to remove fluids) to treat fluid buildup in the lungs

Your pet's breathing difficulties may require additional diagnostic testing to determine the exact cause. Diagnostic testing may involve chest or abdomen X-rays and an electrocardiogram or echocardiogram to assess 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.

Difficulty swallowing or shallow breathing in dogs and cats must be treated by a veterinarian immediately. Contact Companion Animal Specialty and Emergency Hospital as soon as possible. We are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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