Cats do not usually make a noise when they breathe. While an occasional sneeze or purr is completely normal, loud or congested breathing might be a cause for concern.
However, do not be alarmed right away; not all congested breathing is linked to serious illnesses. If you are concerned as to why your cat sounds congested when breathing, you might find some answers in this article.
Noisy breathing in cats
Noisy breathing in cats can manifest through inhalation or exhalation. With each breath, you might hear a high-pitched sound or a low, congested noise, depending on the cause of the problem. These are further described below:
Medically termed stertor, a noisy inhalation will produce a low-pitched sound as if your cat is snoring or purring deeply. This is usually caused by a nasal obstruction that leads to congested breathing.
Also known as stridor, noisy exhalation is caused by an obstruction within the windpipe or larynx. Unlike inhalation, your cat will produce a high-pitched noise every time she exhales.
Why your cat sounds congested when breathing
Several medical problems can be linked to your cat’s congested breathing. The most common ones are summarized below:
1. Obstruction in the trachea
If your cat’s breathing sounds as if she is choking, there are several possible reasons.
The first is that your furry friend has a hairball that she cannot expel. Cats naturally spit out these lumpy masses of hair unassisted, but it might take a few tries before she can finally cough it all up. If there seems to be an obstruction, you need to intervene to save your cat’s life. You can either perform the feline Heimlich or a mouth sweep to manually remove the hairball.
Swallowing foreign objects is also a potential cause of tracheal obstructions. Curious cats love exploring, especially when you are not around, and might find items around the house that they should not be playing with. These could include string, aluminum foil, rubber bands, paper clips, bottle caps, and other small objects they find on the floor or the table. This is why it is important to make sure that your home is pet-proof – never let Fluffy play with the trash, and always provide her with distracting toys to play with.
2. Feline asthma
Do you hear a wheezing sound every time your cat breathes? Then there is a chance that Fluffy is suffering from asthma. Other symptoms, such as coughing and difficult or rapid breathing, might also be apparent if your cat is asthmatic.
Asthma in cats is generally triggered by irritants in the environment; this could be dust mites, tobacco smoke, strong fragrances, or pollen. The allergic reaction can cause your cat’s airways to narrow, making it difficult for her to breathe. You might also notice her breathing through her mouth as she struggles to get more air into her system.
Reducing the allergens in your home should be your first step in preventing your cat’s asthma attacks. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to invest in an air humidifier to prevent congestion and make her feel a little better. You should also make sure that her litter is fragrance-free and lower in the dust to reduce her asthma symptoms. And lastly, keep your home clean and free from dust and irritants. Avoid using heavily scented cleaning detergents and harmful chemicals, as these can also trigger an inflammatory response in asthmatic cats.
3. Upper respiratory infections
Just like humans, cats can experience congested breathing due to upper respiratory tract infections. Bacteria and viruses are the common culprits of cat colds, as these pathogens can infect your cat’s sinuses, nose, and throat. The infections generally trigger inflammation in the upper airways and cause several symptoms to appear, such as coughing, mucus discharge from the eyes and nose, and congested or runny nose.
You should also learn to distinguish the difference between purring and snoring. While purring is a normal sound of a happy and contented kitty, snoring can be a sign of congestion and breathing issues. Make sure to call your vet if you think your pet has these symptoms so that she can be prescribed the correct medications to alleviate them.
4. Brachycephalic airway syndrome
Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, or BOAS, is a common disorder among flat-faced cat breeds due to physical abnormalities in their airways. Breeds such as Persians and Himalayans typically have partial obstructions in their nostrils as well as smaller tracheae than other breeds, increasing their risk of developing respiratory-related diseases and breathing difficulties throughout their lives.
Other characteristics of cats with BOAS include:
- An overly long, soft palate
- Narrowed airways due to the lack of cartilage rings in the trachea
- Stenotic nares, or narrowed nostrils
- A collapsed voice box or presence of excess tissue projecting into the windpipe
Several cat breeds with short, squished faces are genetically predisposed to breathing difficulties, eating problems, and respiratory infections. Through selective breeding, cat fanciers have bred these cats to achieve a distinctive look, even if it means a lifetime of suffering for the cats. Hence, you should seriously consider these risks before buying a flat-faced cat breed.
Watch out for symptoms such as open-mouthed breathing, abnormal breathing sounds, and laborious breathing, as these can all be signs of an emergency. If your cat shows any of these signs, take her to the vet for a proper diagnosis. Your vet might also recommend prescription drugs or surgery to correct the deformities and make your cat’s life more comfortable.
5. Fluid buildup in the lungs
Fluid accumulation in and around the lungs, also known as pulmonary edema, can cause congestion and breathing difficulties in cats. The fluid buildup prevents the lungs from expanding as they normally should during breathing, making it difficult for your pet to get enough oxygen into her body.
Several underlying illnesses can contribute to a fluid buildup in the lungs, ranging from viral infections to congestive heart failure. Hence, signs of such fluid accumulation should be taken seriously to avoid fatal complications.
Common symptoms of a fluid buildup in the lungs are:
- Lack of appetite
- Breathing with an open mouth
- Laborious breathing
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Dry cough and wheezing
- Cyanosis, or blue discoloration of the lips and tongue, due to a lack of oxygen
- Rapid breathing
If your cat is experiencing any of the symptoms above, take her to the nearest veterinary clinic immediately. Once she has been stabilized, your vet will make a diagnosis and recommend a treatment approach to manage the disease. The long-term prognosis for cats with mild to moderate symptoms is generally excellent, while severe cases might have a lower chance of full recovery.
6. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a type of progressive lung disorder that is more common in senior cats. The symptoms can be mild or severe and cause breathlessness, respiratory congestion, and infections. Like asthma and other feline respiratory disorders, COPD is likely to develop when cats are exposed regularly to allergens, tobacco smoke, and other environmental irritants. Without proper treatment, the disease can progress quickly and lead to fatal complications.
Hyperthyroidism is a disorder in which the thyroid gland produces excessive thyroid hormones, causing an increased appetite, increased resting heart rate, weight loss, and aggression. Without early intervention, the thyroid gland, which is located at the back of the neck, can grow bigger over time and obstruct the cat’s airways. This is why cats with hyperthyroidism can develop difficult and loud breathing.
There are three common treatment approaches for hyperthyroidism, and your vet might recommend any of these: surgical removal of the thyroid gland, radioactive iodine treatment, or anti-thyroid medications. You will need to discuss these options with your vet to understand which solution is best for your cat.
8. Enlarged tumor
Although tumors growing within the airways are quite rare in cats, they can still develop in the sinuses, the back of the throat, windpipe, and lungs. Symptoms of an enlarged airway tumor might vary, depending on how large the tumor is and where it is located.
Tumors in the lungs can cause fluid accumulation as well as a host of other symptoms such as lethargy, weight loss, and lack of appetite. Those that have developed along the nasal and sinus passages can cause mucus and blood discharge, snoring, facial deformities, and seizures. If the tumor is in the larynx or trachea, your cat will likely cough and make high-pitched sounds when she breathes. Congestion and breathing problems are also very common as the tumor continues to grow and blocks the airway.
Most tumors in the airways are not cancerous but will need to be surgically removed to prevent further growth and help your feline breathe better. Cancerous tumors, on the other hand, will need to be treated through surgery as well as chemotherapy.
Those chubby cheeks and fluffy tummy might look adorable, but being obese can do more harm than good to your furry friend. Obesity is often linked to apnea and breathing noises as your cat struggles to breathe due to narrowed airways and restrictive pulmonary damage caused by excess fat. Just like the other diseases mentioned here, feline obesity must be addressed appropriately and without delay.
Aside from making your cat generally unwell, parasites can also cause breathing problems. These unwelcome guests can take up residence in the lungs, heart, and other internal organs, causing several health complications. Heartworms and lungworms, for example, can lay their eggs in the airways and cause breathing abnormalities in cats. Without immediate medical intervention, these horrible parasites can be life-threatening to your pet.
Should you be worried if your cat sounds congested?
You might wonder whether your cat’s congested or noisy breathing warrants a visit to the vet. While some breathing sounds are less serious and manageable at home, others can mean your cat is seriously ill, especially if accompanied by other unusual symptoms.
So, how do you know if your cat needs urgent attention? Here are some symptoms you should look for:
- Panting. Try to give your cat some water and allow her to rest in a cool area. If the panting persists for several minutes, call your vet right away.
- Producing a hissing sound when she breathes. This might be caused by a foreign object or a mass blocking the airways.
- Signs of distress are accompanied by other unusual behavior such as lethargy, lack of appetite, or hiding.
- A mucus discharge comes from your cat’s nose – this could be brown, yellow, green, or reddish. This is likely caused by a feline respiratory infection that needs to be checked by your vet, especially if the cat is very young or unvaccinated.
- Not breathing properly while trying to stretch out her head. This is a common symptom of an asthma attack and requires an urgent visit to the vet.
- Coughing, having been sick for a couple of days. There is a chance that your cat is suffering from pneumonia or lung edema, so you must act right away and take her to the vet.
- Signs of breathing difficulties, with gray or bluish gums or tongue. These symptoms indicate a serious respiratory issue and require emergency veterinary care. Further delays can decrease the supply of oxygen to several body organs, which can quickly lead to death.
How to help a cat with congested breathing
Congested breathing, especially when accompanied by other symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, abnormal noises, and signs of distress, requires immediate veterinary care. In this case, there is nothing you can do to relieve your cat at home. You must call your vet as soon as possible so that your cat can be properly diagnosed and treated.
Depending on your cat’s symptoms, your vet might require several tests such as x-rays and blood samples to pinpoint the cause of your cat’s noisy breathing. Not all breathing noises indicate a serious problem – it might simply be a feline respiratory allergy or infection that can be easily treated with prescription drugs.
However, some breathing issues might be linked with serious conditions such as tumors, COPD, obstructed airways, or fluid accumulation in the lungs. In this case, you will need to discuss with your vet the appropriate treatment approach, which might include surgery or prescription medicines to help your pet recover.
Any breathing changes in your furry companion might cause you to panic, which is completely understandable. Your cat might make the occasional noise while breathing, and this is completely normal. However, congested breathing accompanied by coughing, breathing difficulty, lethargy, and other symptoms might indicate a serious underlying issue.
If your cat sounds congested when breathing, it is always safest to visit your vet if you are unsure of the cause. The sooner your cat is diagnosed, the better you can treat her to prevent potential complications.
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