Why Is My Cat Panting?

Cats aren’t known for panting, but they do occasionally. So why would your cat pant, is the problem serious, and what should you do about it?

Why is my cat panting? There are several reasons why cats pant. Your cat may be overheated, stressed/anxiou, or both. These are problems that can be fixed easily. However, cats can also pant because of serious health issues like heartworm, respiratory infection, hypocalcemia resulting from birth or pulmonary edema resulting from heart failure. If your cat is panting frequently, or has not stopped panting for some time, take it to the vet for a full diagnosis.

The guide below first looks at whether and why cats pant. It will then address what to do if your cat is panting frequently, for a long time, or for short bursts, and how heavy breathing in cats is identified and diagnosed as a symptom of a condition.

Do Cats Pant?

It’s unusual for cats to pant, but they do sometimes. It can either be benign, or it can be a sign of an underlying health issue which may be an emergency. When cats pant, they do so in the same way as other animals: their tongues loll from their mouths and they take in rapid, shallow breaths. Cats normally breathe through their mouths so it’s immediately obvious when they’re panting rather than breathing normally.

Why Is My Cat Panting?

Cats pant for the same reason that other animals do: because they’re overheated, have breathing difficulties, or are scared or anxious. But whereas panting is common in other pets, it’s rare in cats, so is more often a sign that the cat is ill.

Your Cat Is Overheated

cat bath
This cat is desperately unhappy. But if your cat is overheating, you may have to run it under a cold tap to cool it down!

Cat panting is like the equivalent of sweating. Your cat may therefore pant when it’s too hot. If you notice your cat panting after playing with a laser pointer for example, or after playing with another cat, then this is the reason why.

Cats can’t sweat like we can because they’re covered in fur. This would stop sweat from cooling a cat down. Sweat works by forming tiny beads of water on the skin that evaporate easily. Evaporation causes a cooling effect on the surface that the fluid evaporates from (which is how air conditioning works). But your cat’s fur would absorb the sweat and stop it from absorbing properly.

Your cat therefore has to sweat, in a sense, with its tongue. The tongue doesn’t produce sweat, but it is covered in a different fluid—saliva. This saliva can evaporate just like sweat can and cause a cooling effect on the tongue. The movement of air over the tongue, i.e. breathing, assists in the evaporative process. The blood in the tongue then circulates around the body, cooling it slightly. If you see your cat panting and drooling, then, the drool is there because the saliva helps the cooling process.

Whether this kind of panting is a problem depends on what made your cat overheat. If your cat overheated because of strenuous exercise, then it should be fine. It will stop panting when it cools down. However, your cat may be overheated because it’s seriously ill and has a fever. If that’s the case, then medical intervention will be necessary.

You can help your cat cool down in one of several ways. Put it in a room that is quiet and shady. If you have a freezer pack, wrap it in a towel and put it somewhere your cat can sit. If it’s overheated it may use the source of coolness to help itself cool down. If the worst comes to the worst, you could put it in a cold bath or under a cold tap like in the picture above!

Your Cat Is Stressed or Anxious

Why is my cat panting in the car? Because it’s scared.

Panting can also occur in the context of stress or anxiety. This only happens with any frequency when cats are taken for car trips, i.e. when they’re put in situations they don’t commonly encounter and don’t understand.

Panting has a different physiological basis in this scenario. When your cat is stressed, its heart starts beating faster, sometimes much faster. This means that the blood travels around the body more quickly too. As a result, each red blood cell has less time to pick up oxygen from the lungs, meaning it carries less oxygen to the rest of the body. The rate of breathing therefore increases too, to match the increased heart rate, and send more oxygen overall around the body.

In the same way as panting related to overheating, this will resolve when the cat is no longer in the same situation. When your cat feels calmer and safer it will stop panting. This can take time but your cat will eventually return entirely to normal.

Breathing Difficulties and Panting in Cats

Panting can also be a sign that your cat is having trouble breathing. Your cat may not be getting enough air, so has started breathing through its mouth to try and take in more. There are several kinds of ill health that may have brought on your cat’s panting, which are described below.

Your Cat Has Asthma

cat throwing up
Vomiting and panting are two symptoms of asthma.

Cats can experience asthma just like we can. Asthma is medically defined as a chronic inflammation of the passageways of the lungs. This inflammation stops your cat from getting as much air into its lungs as it would like, causing oxygen deficiency, and making your cat pant to bring in more air.

Other symptoms of asthma include wheezing, rapid breathing, coughing and vomiting. It can be made better with medications like corticosteroids or bronchodilators. However, it cannot be fully cured; only managed.

Your Cat Has Heartworm

Heartworm is a serious health issue that results in many symptoms, panting included. It’s different to heartworm in cats, but is no less serious.

Cats aren’t a typical host for heartworms. Heartworms struggle to thrive in cats, and don’t normally reach the adult stage of development; if they do, there is normally only two or three present. The condition is no less fatal, however, because even juvenile heartworms can cause problems.

Heartworms cause a problem called heartworm associated respiratory disease, or HARD. This condition causes breathing difficulties, and therefore panting.

Unfortunately, the medication that vets give to other pets for heartworm cannot be given to cats. Supportive care involves the use of corticosteroids and oxygen therapy. Heartworm can be fatal if untreated.

Your Cat Has Heart Failure

Panting can also be associated with heart failure, which affects the lungs in a roundabout way. When left-side congestive heart failure occurs, there is a backup of pressure in blood vessels delivering blood to the left ventricle of the heart. This causes fluid to build up in the lungs, which is known as pulmonary edema. With the lungs unable to take in much oxygen because they’re full of fluid, your cat will try to bring in as much oxygen as it can by panting.

To treat pulomary edema, the fluid has to be drained away. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, medications called diuretics are typically used to remove excessive fluid from the lungs.

Your Cat Has a Respiratory Infection

Perhaps the most straightforward cause, panting can also be caused by respiratory infection. Respiratory infection is where viruses or bacteria proliferate in the airways and lungs of the patient. In the same way as the fluid of pulmonary edema can block the lungs, so too can the mucus from a respiratory infection.

Respiratory tract infections in cats are typically caused by viruses, but secondary infection by bacteria can occur. If it does, antibiotics will help. Humidifiers and steam treatments can loosen the mucus in the lungs and make it easier for your cat to bring up.

Why Is My Cat Panting After Giving Birth?

Cat stopped meowing
A cat that recently had kittens may pant because of milk fever.

There is more than one reason why a cat having kittens would pant.

One is that the experience can be stressful and painful. The cat may also overheat because it’s exerting itself. If either of these causes is to blame, then it will rectify itself once birth is over.

However, another reason is milk fever. Milk fever is another name for hypocalcemia, which is a low level of calcium. It’s the underlying cause of eclampsia. The mother is using lots of the calcium in her system to produce milk, but has little or none left for herself. This is made worse because the mother has also had to use lots of calcium to form her young in the first place. This results in lots of different symptoms like staggering, restlessness, seizures and panting. These symptoms are normally brought on in the weeks after birth, but because the mother starts producing milk before the kittens arrive, they can occur before or during birth too.

Diabetic Cat Panting

Your diabetic cat may also display panting behavior. This is not one of the core signs or symptoms of diabetes in cats, but it has been recorded as one. A paper published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (Open Reports) refers to a 14 year old cat with diabetes. The condition responded to initial treatment, but recurred, and when it did the cat displayed symptoms like panting and collapsing.

It’s possible that panting is related to hypoglycemic crises in cats. This could be explained by the elevated heart rate seen during these episodes. The paper states that upon presentation to the facility, it had a resting heart rate of 220, and was medically-speaking ‘tachypneic’—that means excessively rapid breathing—at 50 breaths per minute.

What to Do If Your Cat Is Panting

If your cat is panting for the first time, it’s likely that it’s overheating or stressed. These issues are easy to fix. If your cat is overheated, cool it down by turning on the air conditioning, letting it outside (if it’s cooler out), or giving it something cool to sit on. If your cat is stressed, put it in a quiet room where it has somewhere to hide until it feels better.

But if your cat is panting all the time, then the problem may be more serious than that.

Talk To a Vet

When your cat is breathing heavily, or has experienced potentially serious illness or injury, you should take it to the vet as soon as possible. The vet will be able to diagnose the issue and recommend a fix, one of those described above.

The reason you should always take your cat to the vet, even if there are medicines you can buy over the counter, is for a formal diagnosis. That’s because the symptoms of certain conditions can be similar to those of others. You may notice your cat panting and vomiting and thereby diagnose asthma, but the problem could be something else. You don’t want to treat your cat for respiratory infection when it has heart failure, for example, because you wouldn’t be fixing the real problem. The real problem would then get worse and your cat could pass away.

Whatever the vet suggests you should do, do it. They may also recommend a follow-up check just to ensure that the condition has gone away.