It's scary when your pet can't breathe. Breathing problems (dyspnea) are usually indicative of something serious and they should never be taken lightly. Whether your cat's breathing troubles have come on suddenly or they've been building for days, here's what you should do.
0-30 Minutes In: Rush Your Cat to the Vet
Difficulty breathing is a situation in which there is really no alternative other than, "Take your cat to the nearest emergency vet clinic as soon as possible." Even minor-seeming breathing difficulties can turn into life-threatening situations in a matter of minutes. The safest place for your cat to be when having trouble breathing is in a vet's care. Understand exactly which signs mean your cat is "having trouble breathing:"
- Chest and abdomen move more than usual when breathing
- Breathing with an open mouth or in a way described as "panting"
- Elbows are stuck out from the body in an attempt to open the lungs
- Flared nostrils or open mouth when breathing
- Particularly fast and/or shallow breathing
- Noisy, rattling, or otherwise suddenly noticeable breathing
If you notice any of these symptoms, call the nearest emergency vet and tell them you're bringing your cat in. Although it may be tempting to try and comfort your cat in your lap as you drive, it's best to transport her in a box or carrier that's flat so her position won't hinder her breathing any more than is necessary.
30 Minutes – 1 Hour In: Give the Vet a Full Report
Once you arrive at the vet's office, the vet will likely want to know everything you can tell her about your cat's condition. Try and remember when the unusual breathing started and whether there's anything else to report such as increased sneezing, trouble eating, or lethargy on the part of your cat. If your cat is having a lot of trouble breathing at this point, the vet will likely give her oxygen while you talk to try and stabilize her condition. There are literally dozens of reasons your cat could be having trouble breathing. A few of the most common include: infection, tumor, elongated soft palette, enlarged heart, fluid in the lungs, bleeding in the lungs, asthma, allergies, traumatic injury, paralyzing toxins, and low red blood cell count. To determine the cause, the vet will begin a series of tests that might include a blood count, a biochemical profile, a urinalysis, and maybe even an ECG. Depending on what she finds, she may order an X-ray or ultrasound to take a look at your cat's heart and/or lungs. It may even be necessary for her to insert an endoscope into your cat's nose or airways to find out if something's amiss. First and foremost, the vet will be keeping a close eye on your cat's breathing to ensure she's getting adequate oxygen.
1 - 2 Hours In: Talk About Next Steps
What happens next is purely a function of your cat's diagnosis. Some issues can be dealt with quickly, like an object stuck in the throat. Others are temporary but relatively minor, such as an infection that can be managed with antibiotics. It's possible your cat's breathing troubles were brought on by allergies or a one-time allergic reaction, both of which can be countered with medication. If the vet determines there's something more serious going on such as fluid in the lungs or abdomen, an enlarged heart, or even a tumor, she'll likely refer you to both your normal vet and a specialist. If your cat's condition is stable, you'll have a follow-up appointment with your vet and/or specialist who can talk to you about your options (surgery, medication, further tests, etc.) Getting a complete diagnosis and working out a treatment plan could take several days during which time your cat may need to stay at the vet clinic. If your vet feels comfortable, your cat might also be allowed to come home with you which means you'll need to help keep her activity levels low so she won't strain to breathe. If your cat's breathing changes once she's home awaiting treatment, don't hesitate to take her back to an emergency vet clinic.